Through the first five games of the 2020-21 NBA season, Mike Conley has been the most consistent player for the Utah Jazz and he punctuated that level playing on Friday night by carrying the Jazz to a win over the Los Angeles Clippers.
In the box score, you can see his 33 points and seven assists, but what you can’t see is how comfortable he looked on the floor, how dynamic and decisive he was in multiple different types of actions. Even farther from the box score is what it’s taken to get to this point.
“You see how comfortable he looks. He’s looking good out there and I think he’s making the right reads at the right time and not rushing. Kind of just doing this thing, and that’s Mike Conley we all know.” — Donovan Mitchell, on Mike Conley
Exactly one year ago Conley was on the sidelines, hampered by a nagging hamstring injury, watching as his Jazz teammates were in the middle of a 10-game win streak.
“Last year was a tough year,” Conley said after Friday’s win. “Went through a lot personally. On and off the court it was a tough year.”
Through the first 21 games of the season Jazz fans were ready to call the trade for Conley one of the worst in Jazz history. They said Conley was washed, they lamented over the Jazz paying $32 million a year for a player that looked like he was in the declining years of his career or worse.
It wasn’t lost on Conley that he was struggling. Even when he would have high-scoring games or when the box score looked good, the points came through difficulty and more often than not from Conley forcing things on the court. On the defensive end he was having just as much trouble trying to break out of habits formed from his years of playing with the Memphis Grizzlies.
All the while Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Joe Ingles, Bojan Bogdanovic and head coach Quin Snyder continued to support Conley publicly and privately. They never missed an opportunity to state their confidence in Conley.
Then the hamstring started to bother him.
Conley wanted badly to be on the court and to work through the difficulties he was having. But as the Jazz started to go on their 10-game streak, he was forced to watch from the sidelines and it turned into even more of a growing experience than Conley had anticipated.
“It was one of the better years I’ve had as a basketball player as a teammate,” he said.
As he was battling his want to be on the court with his team, he was also battling doubt about coming back from injury.
“I had to see it happening without me involved and that was tough,” he said. “As a competitor you want to be involved in that kind of growth as a team. And then when you get implemented back in the game, you don’t want to be the reason why you guys take a step back, so it was just a lot.”
Through it all Conley learned to be a better teammate and learned a lot of that from the players surrounding him.
“Thankfully Don, Rudy, Bojan, all those guys last year came to play and kind of carried me along with them,” Conley said.
Sometime near the end of last season things really started to click for Conley. During the 2019-20 season hiatus, he was more eager than ever to get back on the court and it showed during his play in the bubble. Gone were the days of forcing actions and overthinking plays or shot opportunities. He looked like vintage Mike Conley, playing free and easy.
One of the biggest questions for the Jazz heading into the 2020-21 season was whether Conley would be able to carry his play from the summer into the next season.
Now, a year removed from those troublesome days of wondering whether or not he would be able to find himself with this Jazz team, Conley looks like he’s been playing with the Jazz for years.
“You see how comfortable he looks,” Mitchell said. “He’s looking good out there and I think he’s making the right reads at the right time and not rushing. Kind of just doing this thing, and that’s Mike Conley we all know.”
Through the first five games Conley is averaging a team-high 21.4 points and 5.2 assists per game while shooting 45.2% from deep. Those numbers, if sustained, would make for one of the best seasons in Conley’s career.