That’s a nickname Mike Conley enjoys.
The best player to never make an All-Star team? Well, that’s a moniker the Utah Jazz point guard had been looking dump for a while.
And after more than a decade of waiting, Conley can finally — officially — claim his place among the NBA’s best. Conley will take the court Sunday night in Atlanta after being named an injury replacement for Phoenix’s Devin Booker.
“Man, it’s unreal,” an elated Conley said Sunday. “I’m just blessed and thankful for the opportunity.”
The Jazz point guard was at home in Ohio, eating dinner with his family, when his phone started buzzing with unknown numbers this week. He ignored a call from his father next, deciding to finish his meal first. Then Conley received a text from a Jazz official telling him the league needed a word.
“I called the number back and they said, ‘We’ve got some good news. There’s a spot in the 3-point Contest at the All-Star game,’” Conley said.
The point guard would have been happy enough to participate in that contest alone, but then he learned he was being invited to the All-Star game itself.
“If you’re available,” the NBA official said.
“I’m on the first thing smoking,” Conley said.
No matter how the honor came, though, Conley’s teammates and coach know it was overdue and well-earned.
“He’s so deserving on so many levels,” said Jazz head coach Quin Snyder, who will lead Team LeBron and coach against Conley in the star-studded showcase. “… For him to be able to participate in this game, it stands alone for the season he has had. It’s also something of a lifetime achievement. Collectively, everything he has accomplished is also being recognized here today.”
Jazz center and two-time All-Star Rudy Gobert was frustrated when Conley was not initially selected among the West’s All-Star reserves. But Gobert was thrilled to learn Conley would join the Jazz contingent — Gobert, Snyder and Donovan Mitchell — this weekend in Atlanta.
“I was just so happy, so excited for him,” Gobert said. “It was frustrating to see that he wasn’t selected at first. We really thought he deserved it and he has deserved it for many years in his career. It made me really happy to see that he was finally an All-Star.”
Conley was among the first to congratulate Mitchell and Gobert for their selections.
“He’s a guy that doesn’t really show emotion, negative or positive. He’s kind of just smoothing sailing throughout,” Mitchell said. “When he didn’t make it, he was calm and cool and collected.”
Mitchell, though, could see Conley’s excitement when the news broke this week.
“When he got the call, you could see it,” Mitchell said. “That was one of the few times you could see it. He was relieved and happy. You could tell it was on his mind. We’re all happy and excited for him to be here. For him to make it, he definitely deserved it. He deserved it many years before. But for him to make it this year, we’re all elated.”
The Jazz were adamant about Conley’s qualifications as an All-Star because they know what he brings each night. The point guard is averaging 16.1 points, 5.7 assist sand 3.5 rebounds per game for the first-place Jazz this season. But Conley also has the second-best total plus-minus differential on the year. The Jazz have outscored opponents by 277 points in Conley’s minutes on the floor.
“There are certain things we don’t necessarily see on the box score that give you an idea how impactful he’s been with our team and how important he’s been to winning,” Snyder said.
Snyder was particularly proud to see Conley bounce back from last year, a season filled with ups and downs as he settled in with a new team.
“Last year was probably one of his more difficult seasons, particularly given how badly he wanted to have a great year,” Snyder said. “And then to be subjected to some injuries and the acclimation process, for him to come back this year and play the way he has … this has been coming.”
Conley’s 14-year wait is the longest ever for a first-time All-Star.
“For me, I’ve always tried to play through as much injury and as much pain as I could, to try not to miss games, to be there for my team, to sacrifice my body to have the opportunity to do this and never could quite make the cut,” Conley said. “There have been years I’ve scored a lot of points and my teams have been in the middle of the pack or not so good and I didn’t get the chance to make it. There have been teams I’ve been on that have been really good and I’ve just had a different role. That’s kind of what I’ve had in Utah, just a different role that I’ve been able to play really well in alongside a lot of great guys and great coaches. This opportunity isn’t something I did for myself, it’s something we did collectively as a team.”
But the wait has made it sweeter.
“It’s going to be one of the better moments of my life,” Conley said. “I’m just looking forward to going out there.”