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Mike Conley Jr. Is the Human Anti-Highlight Machine

He’s no Russell Westbrook, but the Grizzlies point guard is playing some of the best ball of his career

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Earlier this season, I scoured the internet for Mike Conley Jr. highlights. Conley rarely, if ever, has highlight-worthy moments — he has compilations of sound play. You would think that consistency would count for something, but in the NBA’s age of wonders, it’s hard to get excited about watching consistent excellence.

Here’s something you may not have known: Embedded inside what remains of Memphis’s Grit ’n’ Grind, Conley is having his best season. His 20.5 points per game is seven points higher than what he averaged during his first eight seasons. He’s also posting career bests in rebounds per game, PER, and effective field goal percentage, all while registering his highest usage rate.

Watching Conley has become a guilty pleasure of mine, an exercise in being amused by what the public rhetoric identifies in very technical terms as “meh.” A couple of weeks ago, Jonathan Tjarks ranked the league’s top point guards. Conley didn’t make the cut. Considering the wealth of talent and youth at the position, it was probably a rightful omission. But while calling Conley one of the league’s premier point guards may have gone out of style, his game is still in vogue.

Here are Conley’s best anti-highlights.

Dribble Handoff Finish

I don’t have the Synergy numbers on this, but the Grizzlies must run a high screen with Conley and Marc Gasol more than any other play. And with good reason. Memphis runs many variations off of this, and though most end up with Conley threading the ball back to Gasol for a midrange jumper or a long 3, the one above is a dribble handoff that allows Conley to gain speed and use his silky finishing skills.

This may not make your heart palpitate like a Russell Westbrook drive, but it is as beautiful as it is effective.

Crossover Finish

When I was making this GIF, I was presented with the option of marking it as “NSFW.” Maybe I should have. Here, Vince Carter helps switch the big man onto Conley, who eviscerates him on his way to a smooth finish off the glass. It’s an effortless play by Conley, who still possesses those nimble moves he showcased when he first came into the league from Ohio State.

Conley doesn’t have that signature highlight that guys like Westbrook or Steph Curry possess — moves like the one above are as good as it gets — but in a league that has turned the highlight dunk into currency and the 3-point shot into a market inefficiency, Conley is getting by with a game that features a little bit of everything and not too much of anything. Sometimes muted balance can trump flamboyance.

Off-Balance 3-pointer

Conley began Sunday’s game against the Lakers shooting 0-for-6 from 3, but hit four triples in the second half to salvage a poor shooting night. Conley is thriving from behind the arc this season, making more than 40 percent of his 3s, the second-best rate of his career, while hoisting a career-high six attempts per game. Conley’s smooth, left-handed stroke won’t leave you in awe like Curry’s range will, but both are making the shot Curry is known for at the same rate.

Off-the-Ball 3

Conley is also doing a lot more off-the-ball work this season, coming out of screens to quickly fire off catch-and-shoot 3s, which he’s hitting a career-best 44 percent of the time. Before this season, Conley had posted only three games of five or more 3s in his entire career. This year alone, he has seven of those games, including four when he has made seven 3s. The Grizzlies have won all but one.

Threat of the 3

In each of those four contests, Conley has scored 30 points or more while still averaging more than eight assists. Conley’s improved 3-point threat has made him an even more dangerous passer (more on that in a minute) and scorer, as he still has the ability to blow past guys who now press up on him near the arc, catering to his ability to dribble through or around defenders and finish expertly around the rim.

Eyes in the Back of His Head

On Sunday against the Lakers, Conley had 12 assists. When Conley is on the court, the Grizzlies are nine points per 100 possessions better on offense. That’s due to his scoring leap this season, but also to his ability to remain a classical point guard in the sense that he can set guys up perfectly all over the floor. He and Gasol have a nearly unparalleled chemistry between a guard and a big. Conley can dribble circles around the defense in the half court and still know exactly where Gasol will be.

This season, Conley’s assist percentage is a career-high 34 percent, a top-15 mark among players with more than 1,000 minutes played. Even though he’s scoring at a higher clip this season, Conley isn’t neglecting his primary point guard responsibilities. He’s sharing the ball more efficiently than ever.

The Warriors Game

No game put a bigger spotlight on Conley than when the Grizzlies visited Oracle Arena in early January. As mentioned previously, Conley has been hitting the 3 and passing the ball at career-best clips, but on this night — avert your eyes, Sloan-ites — he went back to his bread-and-butter: the midrange pull-up jumper.

On both occasions above, Gasol tries to come up for the patented screen, but is thwarted by Warriors defenders. Conley then goes at Klay Thompson and does enough to free himself up for two shots that topped off a 27-point, 12-assist night and won the game for Memphis. Conley isn’t one to recklessly exert his dominance at the risk of a game’s result (looking at you, Russ), but as he showed in Oracle that night, he can do clutch too.

Conley isn’t cut from the same cloth as Curry, Russ, or even Damian Lillard. Rather, he is built from the materials that made up players such as Tim Duncan, who are more methodical than explosive. As Steve Nash and Bill Simmons discussed on last week’s Bill Simmons Podcast, this new crop of point guards — athletic, big, score-first ball handlers — isn’t typical to what a point guard was once considered to be: smaller, pass-first guys. Conley is caught somewhere within the evolution. While Conley has always been considered underrated, he’s quietly putting it all together this season, balancing out being a consistent, double-digit scorer and above-average shooter with remaining a pass-first point guard who has an eye for managing the game.

The Grizzlies don’t have much of a shot at winning the title or even the West, just like Conley has no shot of upending the top point guards. But while the NBA traffics in high-flying high jinks and supernatural shooting, Conley is out here just being the best version of himself. And that’s pretty good on its own.