Free agency not weighing on Mike Conley Jr.: ‘I can play with the elite in the game’

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INDIANAPOLIS – Between the nausea, throbbing headaches, agonizing pain, dizziness and swelling so bad beneath his eye that he could barely see, the least of concerns for Mike Conley Jr. was when that unfamiliar face stared back from the mirror the first few days after sustaining the facial fracture during the first round of the playoffs last April.

"I was ugly," Conley told Yahoo Sports, shaking his head. "That was ugly."

Conley had two metal plates inserted into his left cheek to repair broken bones after a collision with Portland guard C.J. McCollum's left elbow. The pain was so unbearable, Conley feared his season was over at a crucial time for the Memphis Grizzlies’ organization, with his best friend on the team, Marc Gasol, approaching free agency. Conley only needed eight days to return to the court, missing just three games before arriving for Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals at Oracle Arena with a plastic facemask. Matched up with league MVP Stephen Curry, Conley scored 22 points to lead the Grizzlies to a win and earned praise for his toughness and dedication to his team.

"To be honest, it wasn’t as tough as people may think," Conley told Yahoo. "Me being out there, it was just like, I don’t expect to score 30 points or win the game. As long as I’m on the court, I felt I won."

Mike Conley Jr. is now sans mask and looking to help the Grizzlies win. (AP)
Mike Conley Jr. is now sans mask and looking to help the Grizzlies win. (AP)

And, in an odd twist in a career defined by thriving as an afterthought, Conley learned that he had to wear a mask for the basketball world to see him for who he really was.

"It was definitely gratifying to know that finally, after eight seasons, people are starting to notice, it took me to break my face to get the attention," Conley told Yahoo. "Because I felt like I’ve been doing it for so long. And I’ve been that same player, but it really drew a lot of attention to me and my team and I’m really happy [the recognition] happened."

Conley has been on an almost never-ending quest to gain respect and acknowledgement for his own talents – starting as the son of an Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump, to being the trusted sidekick to Greg Oden both at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis and Ohio State, to earning the flattering but frustrating title as the most underrated point guard the past few seasons in the NBA. The latter has always meant being just good enough to always miss out on making the All-Star team despite being the speedy but steady hand for an annual Western Conference contender.

"I use everything that was said negatively throughout my career, everything that wasn’t said, all the years of being overlooked, all the years of being in the shadows, I was working, knowing that one day, I’ll get my opportunity, one I’ll prove to everybody what I can do," Conley told Yahoo. "And I just make sure that I’m ready."

The postseason finally helped boost Conley's profile and he started to receive more exposure last summer, around the time the final fracture in his face fully healed. Conley traveled to China on behalf of the NBA and was one of 34 players invited to Team USA minicamp in Las Vegas and has now entered a season in which the attention will be more intense than ever.

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Conley will be one of the more coveted free agents next summer, when the salary cap is expected to explode and most teams in the league will be able to throw in his direction a contract in excess of $20 million per year. A first career All-Star appearance could increase his value even more, but Conley has stopped stressing over that goal in a conference that remains stacked with backcourt talent, particularly at point guard.

"I got caught up in it a little bit last year," Conley told Yahoo about the All-Star team. "I really thought I was going to make it, and then I didn’t. I’m just worried about the team. It’s always been about the team. If I make All-Stars, I make All-Stars. If I don’t, I don’t. I understand it’s so much talent and people deserving of it."

The Grizzlies have every intention of keeping him, and Conley perhaps hinted at his desires to remain by working hard to persuade Gasol to stay last summer. Conley deceptively made a season-long recruiting pitch to Gasol by routinely picking up the tab at dinners and frequently feeding him in the post, helping the center earn a starting nod on the All-Star team. When Gasol returned to his native Spain last summer, Conley flooded Gasol's inbox with emails and his cellphone with text messages about staying with the team. Gasol's five-year commitment to the Grizzlies had to come with some inclination that Conley planned to make the same decision when he hit free agency a year later. But Gasol said he plans to leave Conley alone this season and won't pester him to stay in Memphis.

"Yeah, but I cannot force him to do anything that he doesn’t feel that is right. He has to do what is right for him, that he believes in it," Gasol told Yahoo Sports. "If you feel forced to do something you don’t believe in, then you’re going to regret it. And whenever he makes his decision, whatever his decision is, he knows our relationship goes way beyond basketball and we’ll always be friends, past this five, 10 years left in our careers. As long as we live, we’re going to be friends. It’s not going to affect our friendship."

Conley already feels that Gasol is working him in another way, because he hasn't been acting the same through the early part of the season.

"I’m not going to lie. He’s been nicer to me than I’ve ever seen him, so I think it’s already starting," Conley told Yahoo with a laugh. "Normally, he’s yelling and he’s really hard on me, so he wants me to be great. I’ll make a mistake and he’ll be like, ‘Oh, that’s all right, Mike.’ Normally, he’s like, ‘Bleep! Bleep! Bleep! Bleep!’ All at me. Now, he’s smiley, laughing. I’ll make a joke about him and he won’t get mad. He’ll just laugh. I see him changing, just trying to get me to come back."

Marc Gasol (left) and Mike Conley Jr. during the preseason. (AP)
Marc Gasol (left) and Mike Conley Jr. during the preseason. (AP)

Gasol managed to get through all of last season without allowing free agency to become a distraction and it resulted in some of the best production of his career.

"I didn’t care much about the process, especially during the year, because there is nothing you can do. You cannot create a problem before the problem comes," Gasol told Yahoo. "You’ve got to be strong-minded and worry about the things you got to worry about and everything else will take care of itself. I think [Conley] wants to follow what I did last year."

Conley's more pressing concern is getting healthy after a difficult season that included injuries to his right foot, wrist, both ankles, neck, calf and, of course, the broken face. He recently ditched the protective mask as he's grown more comfortable without it. But after Conley hit a go-ahead 3-pointer and found Gasol for a jumper on the next possession late to lift the Grizzlies to their first win of the season Thursday against the Indiana Pacers, Memphis coach Dave Joerger suggested that his point guard is being slowed by another undisclosed ailment.

"He's kind of struggling right now. Physically, he's laboring,” Joerger said. “I think it's going to come for him. They always say he's ‘Mr. Clutch.’ I know he's fighting through it, and he's going to get back to where he needs to be."

As Conley walked out of the locker room, Joerger stopped to ask him if he was OK. Conley nodded, then Joerger said jokingly: "We've been together nine years now and you still won't tell me?"

Conley smiled, unwilling to reveal anymore, then headed out the door. Whatever might be hindering him, Conley is already confident that he'll overcome it because he’s already passed a test he never thought possible last May.

"You learn who you are when you’re going through situations like that, and what you’re made of," Conley told Yahoo. "I saw that there was another level I can get to and I am that good, I can play with the elite in the game. It solidified that for me. Coming into this year, it’s continually developing, continuing to learn, kind of piggybacked off that last year because what I was going through at the time."

Then, with no sense of irony or sarcasm, Conley added, "What I was capable of doing in the playoffs, really opened up my eyes."

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