Both underrated and underpaid once upon a time, Memphis Grizzlies star guard Mike Conley no longer is one of those things, not after he signed the biggest guaranteed contract in NBA history last summer.
But what about the other thing: Can you possibly still be underrated and paid $30 million a season at the same time?
“I don’t think so,” Conley said. “I think that would be about impossible.”
Once the “other” Ohio State guy taken in the 2007 draft, Conley, at age 29, has turned himself into one of the NBA’s best two-way point guards, all the while maintaining a rather low profile in a Western Conference stacked with All-Stars at the position.
That is, at least until Conley signed a maximum five-year, $153 million contract that rewarded him for all he had done all those years without such an exorbitant salary.
Drafted two picks after vaunted Buckeyes teammate Greg Oden went No. 1 overall in 2007, Conley became the pulse of a Memphis team that grew together into one that has reached the playoffs the past six seasons and won 50 or more games in three of those.
All the while, Conley has played himself under the radar, at least compared to such players as Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and even Damian Lillard.
“At first, it didn’t faze me at all, and then I got better and better as each year went on and I felt like I deserved a little more,” Conley said. “I never kind of got that spotlight — and rightfully so, because there are so many good point guards in the West.”
Teamed with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph these past eight seasons, Conley helped the Grizzlies to the 2013 Western Conference finals and to the second round two other times.
“He’s one of those guys who has gotten a lot better every year in the game,” Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. “It’s the way he runs a team and his leadership, and he’s unselfish, too.”
But Conley hasn’t played in an All-Star Game yet.
“It’s very frustrating, but I know my team feels like I am, I feel like I am that All-Star-caliber guy,” said Conley, whose Grizzlies on Saturday played the Wolves for the third time already this season. “I just have to keep playing like that and get better as each year goes by.”
He entered the NBA as second on his college team to Oden and established himself as a defensive-minded player “because I wasn’t the best shooter.” Then in time he made himself that, too.
The Grizzlies rewarded him with a contract that pays him $26.5 million this season after he made $9.6 million last year.
“Now it is people saying he’s overpaid, because no one looked at him like that kind of player before,” new Memphis coach David Fizdale said. “But why wouldn’t you root for a guy who comes in every night and does his job at a high level, who carries himself first class no matter what to be the highest paid in the league? For me, he’s going to live up to that contract and he always has.”
From underrated to overpaid, all in a summer …
“I’m just a guy who does whatever I have to do for the team,” Conley said. “Underrated, overrated, whatever you want to call it, I just do what I do for the team and I’ll continue to do it. Hey, at the end of the day we’re all overpaid. I’m happy to be on the higher end of that day, I guess.”
Doc saw it coming
Like Tim Duncan two months before him, Kevin Garnett walked off into retirement in September without any real fanfare, which didn’t shock pal Doc Rivers one bit.
“They’re complete opposites and yet they’re very much the same in some ways,” said Rivers, the coach of the Clippers. “In that way, you knew Kevin was going to leave quietly, which you don’t say about Kevin very often. You knew Tim would the same thing, and they both did. They both literally left the game and said goodbye and you didn’t see them again.”
Well, not entirely. Garnett does Thursday night appearances from his own set on TNT’s NBA coverage.
“He missed the camaraderie, he misses the locker room,” said Rivers, who coached KG for three seasons in Boston. “I don’t think he misses the work anymore, and he put in as much work as any player I’ve ever seen.”
‘The Jet’ flying high
Good thing TNT analyst Kenny Smith isn’t prone to hyperbole or he would have gone further than he did when making these Wolves comparisons on Thursday:
• On Kris Dunn: “He has Russell Westbrook-type tendencies because of his size, strength and ability … Coaches love to find trust. Sometimes you just have to give it.”
• On Andrew Wiggins: “He’s going to be the new 2-guard of the future. He’s going to take [James] Harden’s spot. He’s going to take Klay Thompson’s spot.”
• On Karl-Anthony Towns: “He’s going to be the new Tim Duncan. He’s going to be the guy. He has three-point range. He has post-up ability.”
• On Zach LaVine: “He’s the new Clyde Drexler.”
Wolves’ WEEK AHEAD
Monday: 7 p.m. vs. Boston
Wednesday: 8:30 p.m. at New Orleans
Friday: 8 p.m. at Phoenix
Saturday: 9:30 p.m. at Golden State
Mon. FSN+, Wed. ESPN, Fri. and Sat. FSN
Player to watch: Kevin Durant, Warriors
The Wolves get their first look at a Golden State team that won a record 73 games last regular season, didn’t win a title and now has added free-agent superstar Durant alongside Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
“This is the first time seeing him awake on the court.”
— Wolves big man Gorgui Dieng after Thursday’s victory over Philadelphia, on laid-back teammate Andrew Wiggins, who seemingly is finding a new personality on the court by the game.
Twitter: @JerryZgoda, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Blog: startribune.com/wolves