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November 11, 2011
Taking the Next Step
Mike Conley

by Sebastian Pruiti

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In the span of this past season, Mike Conley went from a question mark for the Memphis Grizzlies to a quality starting point guard in the NBA. Conley boosted his scoring average from 12.0 points per game to 13.7 while increasing his PER from 13.8 to 15.8. Conley's improvement was a huge reason why the Grizzlies made the playoffs last year, and much of it came from the ability to finally knock down spot-up jumpers.

For a team like Memphis with few different low post threats, having a point guard who can knock down a spot-up jumper is vital. The Grizzlies want to throw the basketball in the post and let Zach Randolph or Marc Gasol do work on the block. If you have a weak shooter making that entry pass, defenses won't think twice about doubling and making things extremely difficult for those post players. With a point guard who can shoot, that double-team becomes more risky because a simple kickout leads to a makeable shot. The forces the defense to think twice and allows for more space and time on the block:

The numbers show us that Conley was a fantastic shooter in spot-up situations all season. According to Synergy, Conley scored 1.132 points per possession when spotting up, putting him in the top 15 percent of all NBA players. In each of these clips, you notice that the defense is getting sucked in, and rightfully so, by the post entry pass. The Grizzlies' bigs are good enough passers to find Conley spotting up, and Conley rewards their passing ability by hitting the jumper consistently.

However, if Conley wants to take the next step and become a top-tier point guard, he needs to improve other aspects of his game. Most importantly, Conley needs to do a better job of taking care of the basketball in pick-and roll-situations. Conley's overall pick-and-roll numbers aren't great; his 0.743 PP puts him in the bottom 40 percent among NBA players. The biggest reason for this low number is the number of turnovers that Conley amasses in the pick-and-roll. When coming of a ball screen, Conley turns the ball over 14 percent of the time:

Conley seems to have all the physical aspects necessary to be an effective pick-and-roll point guard; he's a solid passer, a pretty good ball handler, and he is quick enough to get around defenders. Conley's problems are mental, as he is a very poor decision maker when coming off of ball screens. Whether it is picking out the wrong pass, deciding to pass when he should be taking it to the rim or waiting too late to make his decision Conley is wrong more often than not.

What makes Conley unique is that he is the complete opposite of most point guards trying to take the next step. Many younger point guards are fantastic coming off of screens, but average at best shooting the jumper. Conley has the outside shot that most of these guards are longing for, but is lacking that ability to come off of screens and make proper decisions. Will he ever develop it? That's hard to say.

Conley has had a lot of time to try and, in my opinion, this season will be his last and best chance to prove that he can be an above-average starter. He's going to be playing with a team he is comfortable with for a coach who has been there for a few years now. Conley should have enough experience where those poor decisions will start to decrease.

Sebastian Pruiti is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Sebastian by clicking here or click here to see Sebastian's other articles.

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