Mike Conley Jr. has been here before.
The former Ohio State point guard is no stranger to the spotlight, even if it's a place that he's rarely expected to be. After all, it was just six years ago that Conley emerged from Greg Oden's shadow to help lead the Buckeyes to the 2007 national title game, capping off a freshman campaign that resulted in him unexpectedly declaring for the NBA Draft.
Now in his sixth season with the Memphis Grizzlies, Conley has never made an All-Star game or All-NBA team, but that hasn't stopped him from becoming one of the surprise stars of the NBA Playoffs.
Averaging 18.1 points, 7.3 assists, and 4.6 rebounds in the Grizzlies' first 10 games of the postseason, the Indianapolis, Ind. native has led Memphis to a 3-1 series lead over the second-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Semifinals. A win over the Thunder tonight would put the Grizzlies in the Western Conference Finals, and continue to establish Conley's reputation as one of the premiere point guards in the NBA.
"Mike Conley is now one of the top five point guards in the league, whether anybody likes it or not," Memphis guard Tony Allen said. "I know a lot of people have got their favorites on who they think it should be, but Mike Conley is in that conversation now, being able to do these types of things on the court night in and night out."
The way that Conley has grabbed headlines, respect, and even a Sports Illustrated cover in recent weeks isn't all that dissimilar from the final month of his short-lived college career, which saw him average 16 points, 4.8 assists, and 4 rebounds in Ohio State's six NCAA Tournament games. Despite being a freshman, Conley was viewed as one of the leaders of the most successful team of the Thad Matta era in Columbus, which compiled a 35-3 record before losing to Florida in the National Championship Game.
"Mike will bring so much to the table besides the points and the assists," Matta said in 2007. "The stabilizing factor is what I love about him. If the team is pressing us, once we get the basketball in his hands, I'm like, 'Yeah, we're in good shape, here.'"
Conley's breakout season landed him in the NBA Draft sooner than anybody -- Matta and Conley himself included -- expected him to. He was selected by Memphis with the fourth overall pick, just three spots behind his high school teammate Oden, who was taken by the Portland Trailblazers with the draft's top pick.
For the first five years of Conley's professional career, the Grizzlies meddled in mediocrity, making the playoffs twice and advancing past the first round once. This season, however, has been different for a Memphis team on the cusp of its first Conference Finals appearance in franchise history, thanks in large part to the former Buckeye who has taken on an even larger burden than he was expected to at the season's start.
When the Grizzlies traded its leading scorer in Rudy Gay back in January for financial reasons, most figured that the team was writing off the present in hopes of a more promising future. But the deal that sent Gay to Toronto for role players Ed Davis and Tayshaun Prince has proven to be a blessing in disguise for Memphis, as Conley has noticeably stepped up his game in his former teammate's absence.
Since Gay was traded on Jan. 30, Conley has seen a boost in his shooting percentage, free throw attempts, and assists, and a decrease in his turnovers, despite becoming an even more vital piece of the Grizzlies' balanced offense. The 6-foot-1, 185-pounder is just fine with his new role, which has led to him hitting key shots like his Game 2 dagger that stole homecourt advantage from the Thunder.
"For this team, after we lost Rudy, it was tough," Conley said. "We didn't know who was going to be that guy down the stretch and, you know, I've kind of had to assume that role, grow into it and live and learn from it."
An NBA All-Defensive Second Team selection this season, Conley has become a favorite of Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, thanks to his reliable play and high basketball I.Q. The way that Hollins talks about his point guard is reminiscent of the praise that Matta heaped on Conley six years ago, when the former five-star prospect was playing his way into the NBA's Draft lottery.
"He's just 'steady Eddie' out there," Hollins said of Conley. "He's just really intelligent. He understands what we want to do, and how to get us there."
In an NBA where the likes of Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, and Deron Williams dominate the discussion of the league's top point guard, Conley is often a forgotten man, much like he was when he arrived at Ohio State as the lesser-known product of Lawrence North high school. A Memphis win tonight over the Thunder will surely change that perception, if this recent 10-game run hasn't done that already.
"There are lots of players in this league who are very good and don't get any recognition," Hollins said. "And I tell the players -- I talk to them directly: The longer we're in the playoffs, the more you'll get national recognition.
"It'll come if we win."