Mike Conley never wanted to leave the Memphis Grizzlies, but the franchise’s decision to rebuild made it clear a trade would be best for both sides.
He will go head-to-head with his replacement when he returns to Memphis for the first time as a member of the Utah Jazz. Conley’s matchup with impressive rookie Ja Morant will be the focal point of Friday’s game, when the Jazz and Grizzlies square off in a highly anticipated contest.
The 32-year-old Conley spent 12 seasons with Memphis and is the franchise leader in games played (788), points (11,733) and assists (4,509).
He was the fourth overall pick of the 2007 NBA Draft and was the heart-and-soul of the team’s “Grit and Grind” era that included Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.
Conley was traded in a package for forward Jae Crowder, guard Grayson Allen, since-departed swingman Kyle Korver and two first-round draft picks, but the veteran point guard left Memphis with no bitterness and remains appreciative of the city where he laid his NBA roots.
“Memphis is all I knew for so long, and this is a city that raised me and molded me into who I am,” Conley told reporters on Thursday. “I owe everything to Memphis; the organization, the team, the city, the community, all my family and friends back there, so it means a lot.”
Conley’s departure opened the door for Morant to be the floor leader. The Grizzlies tabbed the former Murray State star with the second overall pick to be a marquee piece of their rebuilding project.
The 20-year-old Morant flashed his talents with 23 points and 11 assists for his first double-double in Wednesday’s 119-117 road victory over the Charlotte Hornets. He topped off the performance by driving through the Charlotte defense for the winning layup with 0.7 seconds remaining.
Morant, who is averaging 18.3 points and 5.8 assists in 10 games, knew where the postgame questioning was headed. His matchup with Conley is a highly anticipated event among Memphis fans and throughout the NBA.
“I’m looking forward to playing the Utah Jazz,” Morant told reporters. “It’s a team game. I’m not singling nobody out. I’m just going to go out and do whatever I can with my teammates and come out with a win.”
Conley is averaging 14.7 points and 4.0 assists for Utah but is shooting just 36.9 percent from the field.
His debut with the Jazz was highly forgettable, as he made just 1 of 16 field-goal attempts while scoring five points against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
His efforts have improved, but Conley admitted he struggled to adapt to all the changes, especially the ones that affected his routine.
“It takes me eight minutes to get to the arena when it used to take me 40,” Conley told reporters. “I used to listen to the same music for a 35-minute drive. Now I don’t have that.
“As the season’s gone on, the more games we’ve played, the more I’m getting comfortable in the system. I’m still learning but we’re going in the right direction.”
Utah is flourishing with four consecutive victories, the most recent featuring a rally from a 15-point halftime deficit for a 119-114 victory over the visiting Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday.
Star guard Donovan Mitchell scored 30 points, while Rudy Gobert had 18 points and 15 rebounds, and Conley tallied 18.
Conley is averaging 18.8 points during the winning streak, twice knocking down five 3-pointers in a game.
The Grizzlies lost seven of their first nine games but have registered back-to-back road wins over the San Antonio Spurs and Hornets.
Rookie shooting guard Marko Guduric provided a lift with a season-best 17 points in 20 minutes against Charlotte.
“It was really important. I like it, I love it,” Guduric told reporters. “Big two wins on the road, and hopefully we can continue this winning streak at home.”
Conley averaged 25.8 points, 5.8 assists and 4.8 rebounds while leading Memphis to a 3-1 mark against the Jazz last season.
–Field Level Media