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Mike Conley’s long wait is over. Finally, at 33 years old, one of the league’s most talented guards is getting his deserved praise as an NBA All-Star for the game in Atlanta on Sunday. The announcement took injuries to both Anthony Davis (calf) and Devin Booker (knee) to come true, but while those guys heal, a long-time “underrated” player will get his due.
Conley’s first All-Star appearance in 14 NBA seasons is a league record for the longest time playing without a nod. (Kyle Korver, Tyson Chandler, and Vlade Divac were all honored in their 12th seasons.) And it comes at a time when Conley is playing some of his best basketball for the best team in the league. In 29 games, he’s averaging 16.1 points on 44.4% shooting from the field and 42.2% shooting from 3-point range (on a career-best 2.8 makes per game) with 5.7 assists, 3.5 rebounds, 1.4 steals, and just 1.9 turnovers per night. The Utah Jazz lead the league at 27-9, which is 2.5 games better than the next-best Phoenix Suns.
Conley’s been in the All-Star conversation for a number of years, peaking in 2017 when he might’ve had his best chance. Seventeen players around the league voted him as an All-Star starter, which was seventh-most of all Western Conference guards, while he was just the 18th-most popular choice by fans. There’s an argument to be made that his numbers (20.5 points on 46.0% shooting from the field and 40.8% shooting from 3-point range with 6.3 assists, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.3 steals) would’ve been All-Star worthy had he played for a bigger-market team.
Conley’s All-Star distinction is better late than never though, and it’s fitting that as we discuss the impressiveness of LeBron James’ longevity, a player in his 14th season earns his first nod. That Conley is playing so well this late in his career is amazing, and his finding rhythm with a new team a year after he struggled is even more reason to be wowed. Just a year ago, Utah’s trade for Conley was questioned after the vet played just 47 games and averaged 14.4 points on 40.9% shooting from the field and 37.5% shooting from 3-point range with 4.4 assists, 3.2 rebounds, and 0.8 steals per game. The Jazz lost in the first round of the playoffs in seven games to the Denver Nuggets, and though Conley played well in four of those games, he missed the first two and scored just eight points on 2-of-13 shooting in the decisive Game 7.
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Fast forward a couple of months and Conley’s a vital reason why the Jazz have cruised in the first half of the season with the No. 3 ranked offense and No. 3 ranked defense, according to Basketball Reference. As a unit, they’re outscoring opponents by 9.04 per 100 possessions, which is 2.31 points per 100 possessions greater than the second-best Suns. Utah’s beaten the Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets, Celtics, Bucks, and Blazers. Though these are just regular-season accomplishments, the team has elevated its game with a relatively similar core.
It was disappointing that, once again, Conley, the No. 1 team’s most prolific play-maker and leader in assists, watched on as not one, but two of his teammates — Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert — were named to the All-Star Game. The NBA’s filled with explosive talents, and there wasn’t a clear choice Conley should’ve earned the spot over, but it stings the same. It’s a shame that Davis and his replacement, Booker, won’t make the All-Star Game due to injury, but there is solace in knowing a player like Conley, who’s more than earned the honor for his play on the court and outside of it, gets to play.
“NBA All-Star Mike Conley hasn't been the "best" player on any team he's been on since at least 7th grade, and he's never fully gotten his due [because] of it,” Fox Sports personality and former Ohio State player and Conley teammate, Mark Titus, said on Twitter. “Yet he's almost always his team's MVP. Best teammate I've ever had and an unbelievable human being. Couldn't be happier for him.”
Conley’s one of two NBA players (Grant Hill) to earn three NBA sportsmanship awards, and in 2019, he was named the NBA’s teammate of the year. Heck, the Grizzlies have already announced that his No. 11 will be hung in the rafters.
Hopefully, players allow Conley whatever time he wants on the court come Sunday night. Though the game’s lost meaning even before Covid-19, and there’s been a number of players who’ve explicitly expressed disinterest in this year’s game, Conley getting his due is worth appreciating. Remember, this man gave us his all for that awful NBA H.O.R.S.E. competition earlier in quarantine.
So congrats to Mike Conley for maybe not making the All-Star Game in the way or year he wanted to, but for getting there nonetheless. A lot of athletes retire underappreciated without a moment of celebration for their individual careers. Conley won’t be one of them.