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Column: Mike Conley is still relevant, and that’s good for Ohio State hoops

After all this time.

Utah Jazz v Memphis Grizzlies - Game Four Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

I got a news alert yesterday evening about the game time status of Utah Jazz point guard Mike Conley Jr., who would miss his third-straight game with a hamstring injury, Given I am not at all concerned about the Utah Jazz specifically nor (yet) worried about the Western Conference’s prospects in the NBA Playoffs, I could have easily dismissed the alert. It felt even less relevant since, later that evening, the LA Clippers thoroughly routed the Jazz 132-106.

The Jazz, the top seed in the West, currently boast a 2-1 lead in the series, but certainly missed Conley last night. The point guard has been shooting nearly 47% from the field and 55% from range in five playoff games. He’s led the Jazz in assists in the postseason and is the team’s third-leading scorer behind Donovan Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson.

But why does that matter for those of us who are not Jazz fans? As he has for many years, Mike Conley has quietly been a shining example of what Ohio State basketball players can be in the pros. While the volume of players going to the NBA is much lower than what we’ve seen in the NFL, Conley’s consistent presence on playoff teams is certainly something for the Ohio State program to point to as a measure of success.

The 33 year old Conley is coming on strong at the tail end of his career. After moving over from the Memphis Grizzlies in 2019, Conley earned his first-ever, well-deserved trip to the NBA All-Star Game this past season.

Selected with the fourth-overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft, Conley was not the highest-profile Buckeye off the board, following the flop of a No. 1-overall pick in Greg Oden (no offense to Oden who had a brief and injury-plagued career). Conley was also taken following Kevin Durant and Al Horford — two players who have made greater impacts on the NBA in their times in it.

That’s nothing against Conley, though. Not everyone can be a superstar in the NBA, but Conley played his role in Memphis well. He was a critical part in getting the Grizzlies six playoff appearances in his 12 seasons there, and remains the No. 2 all time leading scorer in franchise history with 4,182 points.

Conley’s continued NBA presence is important, because he remains one of just four Ohio State players active in the NBA, with Evan Turner having retired after the 2020 season.

But there are some caveats. Like so many players that turn into NBA stars, Conley was a one-and-done in college. Does that mean his contributions are any less relevant? Additionally, Conley played a long time ago (well, in basketball terms). Thad Matta was still the coach in Columbus. Ohio State was regularly winning Big Ten titles and making Final Four appearances. It was a different program and team than the one Chris Holtmann is building today.

However, Conley himself was part of that lineage, with the 2006-07 Ohio State team being one of the best in recent memory, and what Conley contributed during his brief time at Ohio State feels much more tangible than the contributions of D’Angelo Russell, for example.

The reality is that the young stars of the NBA today are often not known for their college careers as much as their prowess and imminent star potential coming out of high school. Where they choose to go for what is essentially a gap year between high school and the NBA is hardly a cause for concern from the lay fan’s perspective, and is becoming even less so with shifting NBA eligibility rules.

There are obvious exceptions. Everyone remembers how Zion Williamson and Kyrie Irving, both top-picks in their respective drafts, went to Duke, and their examples have certainly served as recruiting tools for Coach K at Duke.

Some schools, like Kentucky and Duke, are also factories for NBA talent, churning it out on the regular. In total, for instance, Duke has 28 active players in the NBA. Like Ohio State players in the NFL, there are so many players that following each of their careers in detail would be a challenge.

Ohio State, prominent as the program has been at certain times (like when Conley was there), has never had the panache of the aforementioned programs, and never put out NBA talent quite in the volume that those other schools have — though Conley’s and the surrounding classes were probably the closest Ohio State came.

That’s why it’s so good for Ohio State basketball that Conley is still relevant. While there is something to the fact that there are so few other Ohio State players to follow, there’s also the critical piece that Conley is still good after all this time.

I’m not saying he’s LeBron James. But the NBA is full of talent with a regular pool of qualified hot shot young players coming in every year. The fact that Conley is 33 years old and trending upward in his career is so impressive. Again, maybe his talent is not on the level of the superstars we see in the NBA today, but it’s no accident that he’s managed to stick around.

As Ohio State fans, we can respect the player as a successful example of the Ohio State lineage in the NBA. In 2007, did we expect Conley to boom in the same way we have seen with Durant and thought would happen with Oden? Maybe. But success can be a slow burn, too.