Grizzlies’ Mike Conley eager to bounce back from 'the most frustrating year of my life'

Achilles and heel injuries limited Mike Conley to 12 games last season. (AP)
Achilles and heel injuries limited Mike Conley to 12 games last season. (AP)

LAS VEGAS — Mike Conley expects the Memphis Grizzlies to clear him for full-contact drills at some point this month, ending a frustrating ordeal with his left Achilles that cost him a year of his prime and the coach who helped him become a more complete offensive player. Family time was fun and the daddy-day-care responsibilities helped him overcome the agonizing waiting game of the past nine months, but it also made Conley more appreciative of the game he otherwise would’ve taken for granted.

“It’s like I lost my wallet, got it back and now I can do something with it,” Conley told Yahoo Sports at the USA Basketball minicamp last month.

While Conley was away, the Grizzlies tumbled into irrelevance, reversing course from a string of seven consecutive postseason appearances that he directed with Marc Gasol and the since-moved-on faces of the Grit and Grind era: Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. Conley and Gasol had been tasked with leading the next wave for the Grizzlies franchise, with Conley — arguably the best NBA veteran without All-Star credentials — given the opportunity to be an unquestioned leader for the first time in his career. But a bone protrusion in his left heel — which would require season-ending surgery in January — limited him to just 12 games, contributed to the dismissal of David Fizdale and forced Gasol, his good friend, to take the brunt of the criticism for the team’s failings.

“It was the most frustrating year or my life, of my career, because I felt coming into that season, I was on another level,” Conley told Yahoo Sports. “Mentally, physically, my game. Everything was feeling, like, I’ve never played as good of basketball, I’ve never felt this good going into that season and for that to happen, it put me all the way down.”

Conley had intended on building upon a career year in 2016-17 under Fizdale in which he set new bests in scoring, shooting percentage and 3-point shooting and had an impressive postseason performance that included a memorable overtime duel with Kawhi Leonard. “Fiz was huge for me,” Conley told Yahoo Sports. “He unlocked a different part of my game that otherwise I hadn’t been able to showcase and show.”

Fizdale’s time in Memphis was short-lived, however, with a nine-game losing streak and a spat with Gasol resulting in his stunning dismissal. Conley missed seven of those games and felt so responsible for Fizdale’s firing that he reached out on FaceTime to apologize. “It was tough because I knew the reason we lost nine in a row is because I wasn’t out there and wasn’t able to play and really put him in a tough situation,” Conley told Yahoo Sports. “I said, ‘Man, I hate this happened. I feel like I’m a part of the reason this happened.’ He was like, ‘Aw, Mike, man, naw. It had nothing to do with you, you know that. Without you, we still should win games.’ … I still felt some guilt for it. He assured me he’s good and that’s all that matters at the end of the day, being in New York now. So I’m thankful to have had him as a coach.”

The Grizzlies decided to give J.B. Bickerstaff a legitimate chance to implement his own style of play as the full-time head coach and made some small but significant roster changes this summer. Memphis used that well-earned lottery pick on promising big man Jaren Jackson Jr., poached a first-round talent in the second round in Jevon Carter, signed free agent Kyle Anderson away from San Antonio and traded for a solid, defensive-minded guard and great locker-room presence in Garrett Temple.

None of those moves compares to getting back Conley, whose value to the team was never more apparent than when Memphis lost 55 of 70 games without him. Conley, who turns 31 in October, will be in the third year of a five-year, $150 million contract next season and is eager to show how much he has improved from his last full season. Though limited to half-court and one-on-one drills, Conley offered an encouraging sign that he isn’t far off from regaining his old form through a video of him jumping to touch near the top of the backboard.

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“We’re doing the right things. Taking things slow. And giving me time to really be ready to go for training camp. Mentally, I’m there. I’m ready. Physically, I feel good. It’s just my body has to catch up,” Conley told Yahoo Sports. “Being a dad, being low-key out of the way, it gave me a perspective like, ‘Hey. This is great, I get to spend time with my kids, even though this is a down part of my career.’ But also at the same time, I’ve got a new re-tooled drive. … Knowing that I took care of the issue, we got the issue figured out, hopefully, going forward, I won’t have any flare-ups. I can just play basketball like I’m used to playing and I’ve got a free year, another year, added to my career, so I’m excited.”

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