MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) For Mike Conley, the decision to keep wearing a clear mask is easy, even with his left cheek fully healed from the elbow that inadvertently smashed his face last April.
“I’m going to keep it for a little bit,” the Grizzlies point guard said. “I feel more comfortable with it on whenever I’m playing because I already know I get hit in my face all the time. I’m a little dude, so I’m around elbows and stuff all the time.
“So I’m going to wear it until I feel comfortable.”
That may take a while considering the hazards of playing point guard in the NBA. Chicago star Derrick Rose had surgery himself Wednesday to repair his left orbital socket after taking an elbow at practice in training camp.
Conley turned in one of the gutsiest performances in NBA playoff history last spring after CJ McCollum‘s elbow crashed into his cheek, dropping him to the court in Game 3 of Memphis’ first-round series with Portland. Conley needed two metal plates inserted surgically to repair broken bones around his left eye.
After missing three playoff games, Conley made a dramatic return in Golden State scoring 22 points in leading the Grizzlies to a 97-90 win. He helped the Grizzlies take a 2-1 lead over the eventual NBA champs in the Western semifinals until the injury simply took its toll. At Grizzlies’ media day Monday, Conley said the injuries were frustrating.
“We win that game at home go up 3-1, it could be a whole different story. So we definitely feel like we have something to prove,” Conley said.
The Grizzlies are commemorating Conley’s toughness by putting a banner on a building just outside the FedExForum as part of their advertising this season. His performance in pain brought lots of new attention to a guard who has played through a variety of injuries in his eight seasons in Memphis.
Center Marc Gasol said he never thought Conley had to prove himself to anyone, not with how the guard has so often sacrificed his game and stats to help the Grizzlies win.
“What he did in the playoffs you know playing with not the mask but the fractures underneath the mask, that made him a different person I can tell you,” Gasol said.
Conley had a busy summer. He traveled to China in July on behalf of the NBA and was invited to Team USA’s minicamp in August. Conley also spent time simply healing up, and he was healthy as the Grizzlies opened training camp.
“I told my wife last night that this is as good as my body will feel for a long time,” Conley said.
He also spent the summer strengthening ankles Conley compares to rubber now that he’s rolled them so often, and he also bulked up adding more muscle. Gasol said he tells Conley the challenge is keeping that muscle through the season.
Conley helped convince Gasol to sign a new contract keeping the center in Memphis this past summer, and now it’s the guard’s turn to play with free agency looming next summer. Conley said he plans only to think about this season and will address his contract once the season ends, the same approach Gasol took.
Gasol said he and Conley talked about his own future perhaps only twice last season and not once past February. Forward Zach Randolph said fans shouldn’t worry because the Grizzlies have taken care of Conley.
“Mike, he’s an All-Star … so I don’t worry about Mike,” Randolph said. “He’s going to focus on this season, have an All-Star season.”