This has been one of the craziest offseasons in NBA history, with star players changing teams left and right. But before the wild free-agency period got underway, the Utah Jazz kicked off the summer by making a huge trade for Mike Conley. The 31-year-old point guard is coming off a career-year in which he averaged 21.1 points, 6.4 assists, 3.4 rebounds, 2.2 threes and 1.3 steals, and he hopes to help the Jazz make the leap from talented up-and-comer to legitimate 2019-20 title contender.
HoopsHype sat down with Conley at the Jr. NBA Global Championship in Orlando to discuss his first impression of Utah, his bittersweet exit from Memphis, his excitement about playing with Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, what he plans to do once his playing days are over and more.
I know you recently had a chance to spend some time in Salt Lake City. What was your first impression of Utah?
Mike Conley: In the summertime, I didn’t realize that it’s so hot! (laughs) But, honestly, it’s so beautiful there. The people, the fans, have just been so welcoming. My family and I really enjoyed ourselves in the two or three weeks that we’ve been able to spend there. Everyone is just so excited! The Jazz organization is top-notch in every way. Coach Quin [Snyder] is one of the best out there and we have a really good roster. We have all of those in one bottle, so we have a lot going on and it’s going to be exciting.
This offseason, you and Donovan Mitchell have worked out together with skills trainer Chris Johnson. What do you think of Donovan and how you guys can complement each other as a backcourt tandem?
MC: It’s exciting to play next to a guy like Donovan because he’s truly a special player. When I say that, I mean his willingness to learn and his willingness to want to get better in so many different areas. He knows what he needs to improve on and he’s not afraid to attack those [aspects of his game]; he’s not going to ignore them and act like they don’t exist. He’s willing to say, “Hey, I need help learning how to shoot a floater,” or, “Hey, I need help reading this defense in pick-and-rolls,” or whatever it may be. If there’s something that he feels he needs to work on in that particular workout, he’s working and asking questions. With a guy like that, it’s easy to work with him. It’s easy to want to see him succeed and try to get the most out of him. I’m going to be here just trying to make the game a little bit easier on him, by not allowing teams to focus solely on him and hopefully giving him a little bit more legs down the stretch of long seasons.
You were terrific last season, so what are you focused on this offseason as you try to pick up right where you left off?
MC: Really, as I’ve gotten older, it’s mainly been my body. I’m just constantly working on my body and making sure it’s in the absolute best shape it can be by the time September rolls around. As far as basketball goes, I’m just trying to improve every aspect of my game overall. I want to be better defensively, shooting spot-ups, shooting off-the-dribble, in one-on-one situations, finishing at the rim, and in transition. This year might be different because being on a new team, I might not handle [the ball] as much, so what areas can I be effective when I don’t have the ball? I’m working on off-ball situations. It’ll be an interesting year and I’m excited for the unknown and what’s new to come.
Have you wrapped your head around the move yet? You spent 12 years with one team – the Grizzlies – so this is your first change of scenery. What has that adjustment been like this offseason?
MC: It’s still an adjustment. Even just hearing people call my name out and saying “Mike Conley of the Utah Jazz,” it doesn’t even equate yet (laughs). I’m still trying to get used to that and waiting for it to become normal. It’s a new beginning, a new journey, a new challenge and I love that. You don’t get blessed with opportunities like this very often. I feel like I’m in a blessed situation to be part of this organization and hopefully do something special while I’m there.
You are the Grizzlies’ all-time leading scorer, the fans in Memphis love you and you’re one of the best players in franchise history. When you look back on your time with the Grizzlies, what are you some highlights and is it bittersweet moving on?
MC: Memphis made me. I always say that. The experiences I had in that city and with those fans made me. Accolades aside, the things that we accomplished aside, we grew up there. We were kids. We were 19 years old and we had to learn so much. That city helped groom us into who we are, especially myself, and I love all of the memories that we created. It was never easy. Nothing was ever easy in Memphis and I think that’s why the fans were drawn to our team so much. It’s because the way we played and the way we got overlooked and the respect that we didn’t get most of the time was very similar to how the city felt and how the locals felt about life in general. It was an easy bond. It was a family-type atmosphere. Man, it was just [special]. All of those playoff runs and even the years we didn’t make the playoffs… Like last season, I might have had the most fun just because I was around guys who really gave everything they had and, even if we didn’t win, those were some of the best teammates I’ve had over the years. I was so blessed to have such good guys over the years. We created so many great memories.
Speaking of great teammates, both Ed Davis and Jeff Green said that you were one of the best teammates they’ve ever had, that you have no ego and that you’re one of the main reasons why they signed with the Jazz.
MC: Man, I’m just humbled hearing that, honestly. Because Ed and Jeff could’ve went anywhere. They easily could’ve went to an L.A. team or an East Coast team or anywhere else, but they chose to come to Utah. To be a reason why they picked Utah makes me feel great and that what I do isn’t just in the stat sheets. When you build relationships with guys and make sacrifices for guys, they respect it. It just all kind of came full circle with them. I had them as teammates earlier in my career and to see them come back to play with me again, it was pretty cool.
There has been a lot of talk about this team possibly winning a championship because the roster is loaded. Are you guys openly discussing that championship goal or is that something you aren’t talking about?
MC: Well, after talking to Coach Quin, we all realize what the ultimate goal is – and it’s everyone’s ultimate goal – and that’s winning a championship. We know that. Are we going to achieve the daily goals to become a champion? Whether that be getting the most out of each other every practice and shootaround, making sure we’re 100 percent locked in before games, making sure we’re always on time with nobody wandering in late, sacrificing different things in between the lines… Are we doing those things every day? That’s what it boils down to. I think we’re at the stage where we’re just working and trying to stay humble and stay focused and respect the game. At the end of the day, if we do all of the things I said, we have a good enough team, a good enough organization and good enough coaches to give ourselves a chance.
Rudy Gobert is one of those guys you never want to play against because he’s so good defensively. How nice is it having him on your side going forward?
MC: Ah man, it’s a blessing to be on his side now! He’s been a pain in a lot of people’s side for a long time because he’s that guy that you know is always back there. Even when you think you have a wide-open lay-up, you’re still kind of looking over your shoulder for him and you might even miss that wide-open lay-up because you’re worried about him and you aren’t used to an uncontested look around him (laughs). Man, it’s just fun to have a guy like that. He’s so passionate about the game and he works extremely hard. I’m excited to watch him play in the games over there in China. It’ll be fun.
The Jazz will reportedly play against the Grizzlies in Memphis on November 15. How weird will it be to use the visiting locker room and wear a different jersey in that arena?
MC: Man, whenever that day comes, I honestly don’t know how I’ll feel. I don’t even know where the visiting locker room is! I’ve really never been over there! I’ll have a lot of emotions, I’m sure. I’m not a guy who shows a lot of emotion on the court – good or bad – but it’ll probably be one of the tougher moments of my career.
We’re at Disney’s Wide World of Sports for the Jr. NBA Global Championship, which features the top 13- and 14-year-old boys and girls teams from around the world. What made you want to help out with this event and mentor the players?
MC: Growing up, I’ve always had a passion for the game of basketball and I remember the different opportunities I had and the different situations that I got to be part of when I was 13 and 14 years old; I actually got to play here at Disney for my AAU tournaments, so I have a special connection to this and I really wanted to try to give back as much as I can to these kids. I wanted to give back some of my knowledge and share my experiences with these kids, who can hopefully take it home and use it to the best of their ability. Whether they end up becoming basketball players or doctors or whatever it may be, hopefully they learn a little bit from it.
This is just the second year in the Jr. NBA Global Championship’s existence. Do you wish this event was around when you were a kid?
MC: Oh, for certain. This would’ve been one of the single greatest events for 13-year-old me! Not only do they get a chance to play against some of the better competition in the world, they get the opportunity to play in front of NBA and WNBA people – current and former players and executives. I mean, what more could you ask for as a 13-year-old or 14-year-old?
It seems like you’d make a great coach. When your playing days are over, are you interested in becoming a coach either for kids or at the NBA level? Or do you have other post-NBA plans?
MC: Yeah, I think coaching is kind of the natural progression for me. I think that’s something that I’d definitely enjoy, whether it’s coaching kids at any level or [coaching] all the way up to the NBA. It’s such a passion of mine, this game, and it’s something that I know so much about. And it’s one of those games that you can never figure all the way out, and I think that’s one of the things that I love about it. Hopefully I can continue to give back as much as possible.