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Timberwolves’ “old guy” still has game – Twin Cities

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mike Conley is one of the best sources for NBA news.

Entering his 17th NBA season, the 36-year-old Timberwolves point guard has seen it all and has the knowledge and willingness to explain what happened and what will happen to the media and, therefore, the fans. This breadth of knowledge and analysis extends from on-field Xs and Os to team dynamics and development.

Conley is just as good at explaining why two teammates came to blows in the middle of a timeout as he is at explaining what the team needs to do to decode a switch-heavy defense.

So who better to sit down with twice a month to discuss different topics ranging from the Timberwolves to the league as a whole to Mike Conley, than Conley himself.

Welcome to the first installment of Conley’s Corner.

“The Old Guy” still has some game left

Mike Conley noted that there is a “script” that NBA players are supposed to follow. Once you reach a certain age, you have to conform to a different player mold.

“You’re not allowed to do the things you used to do before. You’re not supposed to score 20 points, you’re not supposed to make that many shots. You’re supposed to just impart knowledge to everyone and become that vet,” Conley said. “A lot of people follow him.”

Frankly, it seemed like Conley was a candidate for such a trajectory. While he was an All-Star in 2021 and helped guide the Utah Jazz to the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference in 2022, his usage dropped early last season with the Jazz.

The man who was once one of the most dynamic floor generals in the game was trending toward a lesser role. Conley himself doubted he would have the opportunity to be the ball-caller he was earlier in his career.

“Honestly, I thought we tended to stick to accurate shots in the corners and just be spacers and guards on the floor,” Conley said.

His minutes load throughout his time in Utah was consistently under 30 per game. When the veteran guard was traded to Minnesota, all questions surrounding the deal focused on how much Conley actually had left in the tank.

There was reason to believe that the point guard’s best days were behind him. Much of his traditional “heyday” was hampered by injuries. He played in just 12 games during his age-30 season, first because of an Achilles injury and then season-ending heel surgery.

His freshman year at Utah was derailed by a hamstring issue. He probably wasn’t the same player during this period of his career as many suggest.

But the Timberwolves were convinced when they traded for Conley that he could be everything this team needed and more. In the first week of his tenure in Minnesota, Conley realized his new team wanted him to be an aggressor — and a general — on both ends of the floor.

“I loved it, because I was still preparing for it, training the same way I usually do,” he said. “I don’t sit in the corner and just work on turn threes. I’m still working on dribbling, pick and roll – everything I’m used to doing. For me to have this opportunity again, I’m just really grateful.

He paid for Minnesota’s faith in full. In 24 regular season games last season, Conley averaged 14 points and five assists in 31 minutes per game, while shooting 46 percent from the field and 42 percent from deep. He was one of the team’s best and most consistent players during the team’s first-round playoff series against the NBA champion Denver Nuggets.

More importantly, Conley was the missing piece needed to make the rest of Minnesota’s roster work – including two bigs and a heavily used guard in Anthony Edwards. He knew what the Timberwolves needed to run and when someone else needed to touch the ball.

Timberwolves coach Chris Finch said having a point guard with Conley’s IQ made Finch’s job “easy.”

“We joke that I don’t think enough people talk about how good he is,” Timberwolves president of basketball operations Tim Connelly said. “You say he’s the grizzled veteran, the voice of veteran leadership, but he’s still a heck of a player.”

So the opposite of a failed has-bea is what some may have perceived it to be. Yes, Conley was aware of all opinions.

“I’ve heard it all, man,” said Conley, who turned 36 on Wednesday. “And it’s about how much you let it sit.” If you believe in it, at some point you will be that old man. But a lot of it has pushed me to keep doing the things that I do, to keep my body the same way.

Conley said it’s “ironic” that he feels better today than he did when he was 29 or 30. On the one hand, he is healthy now. He joked early in training camp that he “looked like (Michael) Jordan” in practice as he slid through the paint and executed a reverse layup.

“Seriously,” he said, “it’s nice to feel that again and that confidence to go out there and be who you are.”

He has a solid understanding of the person and player he is.

“Now my body has reached that stage where I know what I need, I know what it needs to stay strong, I know what it needs to stay healthy and if it’s a mix of diet, work ethic on and off the field, sleep, kids, all of that is part of it. I’ve really stuck to it,” he said. “Because that, in my opinion, I don’t think about people’s negative perceptions. I think more about how cool it is to be in year 17 and still be able to run with kids like these kids, to compete and doing all these things. It’s more about pride for me than this motivation (thinking of) ‘I want to show you that I can still do this’.”

Conley is not alone in the group of players his age who are still performing at a high level. Steph Curry graduated from high school the same year as Conley. Kevin Durant is only 11 months younger than him. LeBron James will turn 39 in December. Of course, they are superstars. But we rarely worry about what they have left to offer.

“There are a bunch of guys still playing at a high level, but I’m the old guy. I’m the only one who’s considered old,” Conley said. “So I’m like, ‘Fine, whatever.’ Treat it however you want. I think it has a lot to do with who I am. I will blend in with the team, I will do whatever needs to be done. Instead of pushing, I’m not trying to score 30 tonight just to show that I can still do it. I’m just trying to win the game, however we do it. And we have plenty of guys who can handle this mission.

“So it’s a strange situation, a strange dynamic with what perceptions are.”

But as aware as Conley is of this perception, he doesn’t seem bothered by it. Because you can think whatever you want, but Conley knows the truth: The 36-year-old edition of Mike Conley may be the best basketball version of himself to date.

“I think it might be.” I think there was a time when I was in Memphis and I had a few years where I was like, ‘No one can stop me’ physically,” he said. “I think now I’m smarter, more mature. I know every moment. I’m not afraid of moments. I can take photos at any time. I think I’m just more comfortable in my game. I don’t have to run 100 miles an hour every second, but I can. I don’t need to try to steal the ball and guard you all over the court, but I can. Knowing that I can do everything in small steps, and just being smart with it, has allowed me to be efficient.

“And I think that’s what I’ve tried to be more of as I’ve gotten older.” You won’t get 17 shots, so be efficient on the 10 or 12 you get. Don’t miss a shot. That’s what I’m thinking in my mind: don’t miss a single shot. You get a spot of three, don’t miss it. They pass under a screen, don’t miss it. You do all this. I’m just trying to be 100 percent. This mindset is a little different than the one I had when I was a little younger. I was just going to go in and try stuff. So it’s just a different version.

The Timberwolves need Conley to be at the top of the floor, running pick and rolls with Rudy Gobert. They also need him to chase Curry and Damian Lillard on hundreds of screens every night.

And most importantly, they need him to lead the team masterfully so that all of his teammates can be the best versions of themselves.

It’s impossible to say for sure whether the smart, mature and healthy Conley is a better player than he was a decade ago. But he’s certainly a better fit for the 2023-24 Minnesota Timberwolves as they aim — under Conley’s leadership — to win a playoff series and much more.

“At the end of the day, you are in the places you are for a reason. I think there’s an obvious situation here for me where I can be myself even more than I probably have in a long time,” Conley said. “In Utah, we had a lot of freedom to do a lot of things. But as far as the composition of this team, given that he is expected to be a leader of the team, the coach really gave me the maximum and said to me: “Qu ‘do you want ? What do you like? I want you to do this. The expectation is like, “I want you to keep it.” » It’s like “Whoa”. I’m not used to that.

But he’s ready for this.

“The expectations, as well as the freedom they give me,” Conley said, “all come at the right time.”


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