Mavs coach Rick Carlisle praises each Southwest Division team on making playoffs

SOUTHWEST SUCCESS --- Dallas Mavericks coach Carlisle’s most memorable campaign as an NBA coach came four years ago when he led Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs to their first world championship in franchise history, a six-game upset of the Miami Heat in their best-of-7 NBA Finals series. That year, three teams from the NBA’s Southwest Division (Dallas, San Antonio, and Memphis) had clinched playoff berths. This year, however, each of the division’s five teams have advanced to the postseason, a feat that was effectively decided on the regular season’s final day when the New Orleans Pelicans clinched a berth with a 108-103 win against the Spurs. (Joe Murphy/Getty Images Photo)

SOUTHWEST SUCCESS — Dallas Mavericks coach Carlisle’s most memorable campaign as an NBA coach came four years ago when he led Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs to their first world championship in franchise history, a six-game upset of the Miami Heat in their best-of-7 NBA Finals series. That year, three teams from the NBA’s Southwest Division (Dallas, San Antonio, and Memphis) had clinched playoff berths. This year, however, each of the division’s five teams have advanced to the postseason, a feat that was effectively decided on the regular season’s final day when the New Orleans Pelicans clinched a berth with a 108-103 win against the Spurs. (Joe Murphy/Getty Images Photo)

DALLAS — First team to 16 wins…

“The first one to 16 will have a pretty nice piece for their jewelry cabinet,” Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said while addressing reporters Thursday afternoon at American Airlines Center.

Carlisle was alluding to the 16 teams that have punched tickets to this year’s NBA playoffs, a nearly two-month-long marathon that will culminate with one franchise hoisting the covenant Larry O’Brien trophy.

Now in his seventh season as the Mavericks’ head man, arguably Carlisle’s most memorable campaign as an NBA coach came four years ago when he led Dallas to its first world championship in franchise history, a six-game upset of the Miami Heat in their best-of-7 NBA Finals series.

That year, three teams from the NBA’s Southwest Division (Dallas, San Antonio, and Memphis) had clinched playoff berths.

This year, however, each of the division’s five teams have advanced to the postseason, a feat that was effectively decided on the regular season’s final day when the New Orleans Pelicans clinched a berth with a 108-103 win against the Spurs.

HOT HANDED HARDEN --- The Southwest Division champion Rockets (56-26) are led by NBA Most Valuable Player candidate James Harden, the league’s second-leading scorer. Winners of three straight, the Rockets are in the postseason for a third consecutive year. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

HOT HANDED HARDEN — The Southwest Division champion Rockets (56-26) are led by NBA Most Valuable Player candidate James Harden, the league’s second-leading scorer.
Winners of three straight, the Rockets are in the postseason for a third consecutive year. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

“I think this is the toughest division in all of (professional) sports,” Carlisle said. “It has been for the last several years.”

Among the reasons is the Spurs (55-27) undoubtedly have been the division’s most consistent and dominant team. Making their franchise-best 18 consecutive postseason appearance when they open defense of their NBA title Sunday night at the No. 3 seed Los Angeles Clippers (56-26), the six-seeded Spurs have won five world titles during this stretch.

As for the Mavs, erasing the memory of last year’s seven-game opening-round defeat to San Antonio certainly will be a brutal task, considering seventh-seeded Dallas (50-32) will face the No. 2 seed Houston Rockets Saturday at 8:30 p.m. CST in Game 1 of their best-of-7 opening-round series.

BLOCK PARTY --- Marc Gasol (left) and the fifth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies (55-27), whose 9-7 division record was the best among the other four teams, is making their franchise-record fifth consecutive playoff appearance and will open postseason play Sunday night at 7 CST against the fourth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers in FedExForum. (Photo by Jerome Miron/Getty Images)

BLOCK PARTY — Marc Gasol (left) and the fifth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies (55-27), whose 9-7 division record was the best among the other four teams, is making their franchise-record fifth consecutive playoff appearance and will open postseason play Sunday night at 7 CST against the fourth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers in FedExForum. (Photo by Jerome Miron/Getty Images)

The Rockets (56-26) are led by NBA Most Valuable Player candidate James Harden, the league’s second-leading scorer.

Winners of three straight, the Rockets are in the postseason for a third consecutive year. Dallas is making its second straight playoff appearance.

The fifth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies (55-27), whose 9-7 division record was the best among the other four teams, is making their franchise-record fifth consecutive playoff appearance and will open postseason play Sunday night at 7 CST against the fourth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers (51-31) in FedExForum.

Memphis’ best postseason outing during this span took place two years ago when the Grizzlies manufactured their highest winning percentage and advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in team history.

Arguably the surprise Southwest Division team to make the playoffs is New Orleans.

The NBA’s fourth youngest team with an average age of 24.9 years, the Pelicans (45-37) played arguably their most complete game of the season, which couldn’t have come at a better time, considering New Orleans controlled its own destiny.

Led by Anthony Davis’ 31 points and 13 rebounds, the Pelicans withstood a furious late rally by the defending champs to solidify the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot in the regular season finale, thus ending a four-year postseason drought.

Next up for upset-minded Pelicans is an opening-round date with the top-seeded Golden State Warriors, starting with Saturday’s Game 1 at 2:30 p.m. CST.

Led by Stephen Curry, whom many consider the frontrunner for league MVP, the high-octane Warriors enter the postseason with the NBA’s best record at 67-15.

Come Saturday, the race to 16 wins begins.

Which, of course, begs the question: Will the Larry O’Brien trophy remain in the Southwest Division for a second consecutive year?

As far as Carlisle is concerned, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone if it does.

“It’s just quality teams from top to bottom,” Carlisle said of the Southwest Division. “During the battles of the division opponents during the year, I mean those were slugfest games. They were extremely meaningful. There’s a lot of wear and tear. (Games) were very physical. They’re emotional. But when you get a division like this, that’s the way it’s supposed to be, and it gets everybody primed for this time of year.”

Let the nearly two-month-long marathon begin.

First team to 16 wins…

DrePicAndre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. Based in Dallas, Texas, Johnson covers the NBA Southwest Division. To reach Johnson, send an email to andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki reflects on playing days with close friend Steve Nash

NBA SOUTHWEST DIVISION REPORT

DALLAS — When Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said after the 2003-04 season that he wanted to build his franchise around a younger Dirk Nowitzki then passed up signing Steve Nash to a long-term deal, among those who expressed their displeasure with the move was Nowitzki.

BEST OF FRIENDS --- Dirk Nowitzki (right) and Steve Nash had become close friends during the six seasons in which they played together for the Dallas Mavericks. However, after Mavs owner Mark Cuban had declined to match the Phoenix Suns’ offer to Nash, which was a reported $63 million over six years, Nash reluctantly bolted Dallas for Phoenix after the 2003-04 season, news Nowitzki admittedly didn’t sit well with him. (Photo by D. Clarke/Getty Images)

BEST OF FRIENDS — Dirk Nowitzki (right) and Steve Nash had become close friends during the six seasons in which they played together for the Dallas Mavericks. However, after Mavs owner Mark Cuban had declined to match the Phoenix Suns’ offer to Nash, which was a reported $63 million over six years, Nash reluctantly bolted Dallas for Phoenix after the 2003-04 season, news Nowitzki admittedly didn’t sit well with him. (Photo by D. Clarke/Getty Images)

Nowitzki and Nash had become close friends during the six seasons in which they played together here.

However, after Cuban declined to match the Phoenix Suns’ offer to Nash, which was a reported $63 million over six years, Nash reluctantly bolted Dallas for Phoenix, news Nowitzki admittedly didn’t sit well with him.

“I was disappointed,” Nowitzki told MemphiSport following the Mavericks’ 101-94 win against the San Antonio Spurs Tuesday night in American Airlines Center. “That was pretty obvious. We thought originally that Fin (Michael Finley), myself, and Steve would have a long run together. But Phoenix swooped in and gave him a heckuva deal.”

After an NBA career that spanned 17-plus seasons and was highlighted by eight All-Star appearances and two league MVP awards, Nash officially announced his retirement Tuesday afternoon.

HE SAID IT --- Said Nowitzki in Nash leaving Dallas for Phoenix: “I was disappointed,” Nowitzki told MemphiSport following the Mavericks’ 101-94 win against the San Antonio Spurs Tuesday night in American Airlines Center. “That was pretty obvious. We thought originally that Fin (Michael Finley), myself, and Steve would have a long run together. But Phoenix swooped in and gave him a heckuva deal.”

HE SAID IT — Said Nowitzki on Nash leaving Dallas for Phoenix: “I was disappointed,” Nowitzki told MemphiSport following the Mavericks’ 101-94 win against the San Antonio Spurs Tuesday night in American Airlines Center. “That was pretty obvious. We thought originally that Fin (Michael Finley), myself, and Steve would have a long run together. But Phoenix swooped in and gave him a heckuva deal.” (Photo by Glenn James/Getty Images)

Nash, 41, had been under contract with the Los Angeles Lakers for the past two-plus seasons before injuries ultimately reduced his effectiveness and forced him to call it a career. Prior to joining the Lakers, Nash spent eight seasons with Phoenix, where he enjoyed arguably his best moments as a pro.

Having joined a Suns team that inherited emerging young players Shawn Marion and Amar’e Stoudemire, Nash showed that even as a then-seven-year veteran, he was still very much in his prime. Nash had become only the third point guard (Magic Johnson and Bob Cousy) to capture consecutive league MVP awards (2005-2006) and the first Canadian to win the NBA’s most covenant individual award.

Ironically, Nash barely missed out on seizing a third consecutive MVP trophy, placing second with 44 first place votes, 39 shy of Nowitzki’s 83.

“Well, he was one of the greatest guards to ever play,” Nowitzki said of Nash. “He was an unbelievable competitor, as mentally tough as they get, as mentally tough as anyone I’ve seen in this league. He wanted the big shot. He wanted to be a part of the big games, played through injuries. He was just as tough as it gets and he was my friend.”

Unfortunately for Nash, a rash of injuries in recent years significantly limited his ability to perform efficiently, thus leading to him officially calling it a career.

RISING SUN --- Having joined a Suns team that inherited emerging young players Shawn Marion and Amar’e Stoudemire, Nash showed that even as a then-seven-year veteran, he was still very much in his prime. Nash had become only the third point (Magic Johnson and Bob Cousy) to capture consecutive league MVP awards (2005-2006) and the first Canadian born player to win the NBA’s most covenant individual award.

RISING SUN — Having joined a Suns team that inherited emerging young players Shawn Marion and Amar’e Stoudemire, Nash showed that even as a then-seven-year veteran, he was still very much in his prime. Nash had become only the third point (Magic Johnson and Bob Cousy) to capture consecutive league MVP awards (2005-2006) and the first Canadian born player to win the NBA’s most covenant individual award.

After sustaining a broken leg during his first season with the Lakers, Nash was never the same player again. Consequently, he endured neck, back, and muscle issues from which he never recovered.

Last summer, Nash announced that this season would be his last. However, after experiencing continuous back pains that have been hampering him since the preseason, Nash on March 21 formerly announced his retirement.

Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Nash played at the University of Santa Clara before he was selected with the 15th overall pick by Phoenix in 1996.

A little more than a decade removed from having played with Nash, Nowitzki finally was able to put his and Nash’s careers into perspective.

“I was disappointed at the time,” Nowitzki said of Nash’s unceremonious departure from Dallas. “But you know, looking back at our careers, maybe it was better that way. We both flourished away from each other. But looking back, I’ll always have a smile on my face of the times we had together.”

To his credit, Nash’s unorthodox style of play inspired a number of other NBA point guard, most notably fellow international player Tony Parker of the Spurs.

“He was one of the best point guards in the history of the league,” Parker said. “He had a great mind for basketball. He was a great passer obviously and we’re definitely going to miss him. I’ve had some great battles against him when he was with the Phoenix Suns. I wish him luck in his next challenge in life. We’ve always been good friends and learned a lot just watching him play.”

DrePicAndre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. Based in Dallas, Texas, Johnson covers the NBA Southwest Division. To reach Johnson, send an email to andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

 

OKC rival Memphis Grizzlies respond to Kevin Durant’s latest injury development

DALLAS — In three of their last four playoff appearances, the Memphis Grizzlies went to battle against the Oklahoma City Thunder, including the last two seasons.

THUNDER STORM WARNING --- If the Grizzlies wound up squaring off against the Oklahoma City Thunder for a third consecutive year in the postseason, the possibility exists that they will do so without facing Kevin Durant, the NBA’s reining MVP. That’s because Thunder general manager Sam Presti on Friday announced that Durant has been "removed from basketball activities" and could be shut down for the season. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

THUNDER STORM WARNING — If the Grizzlies wound up squaring off against the Oklahoma City Thunder for a third consecutive year in the postseason, the possibility exists that they will do so without facing Kevin Durant, the NBA’s reining MVP. That’s because Thunder general manager Sam Presti on Friday announced that Durant has been “removed from basketball activities” and could be shut down for the season. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

If the Grizzlies wound up squaring off against the Thunder for a third consecutive year in the postseason, the possibility exists that they will do so without facing the NBA’s reining MVP.

That’s because Thunder general manager Sam Presti on Friday announced that Durant has been “removed from basketball activities” and could be shut down for the season.

The news of Durant’s latest setback surrounding a right foot injury came as a shock to a Thunder team that is clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. According to team officials, Durant’s foot reportedly has caused him more pain after he underwent surgery Feb. 23.

Durant, who traveled with the team to Dallas for Monday’s outing and underwent treatment before that game, told MemphiSport.com, “I’m feeling better. I’ll be re-evaluated in a few days and will be ready to go soon.”

However, as early as Friday, Durant’s injury apparently had taken a turn for the worst, a development team officials believe will likely sideline the seven-year veteran for the remainder of the season.

That OKC will likely be without Durant, its best player, if it clinches a playoff berth for a sixth consecutive year came as a surprise to the Grizzlies, who have faced the Thunder in the postseason in three of the last four years. (Photo by Bill Waugh/Reuters)

That OKC will likely be without Durant, its best player, if it clinches a playoff berth for a sixth consecutive year came as a surprise to the Grizzlies, who have faced the Thunder in the postseason in three of the last four years. (Photo by Bill Waugh/Reuters)

“He’s not making the progress we’d hoped or expected,” Presti said.

That OKC will likely be without its best player if it clinches a playoff berth for a sixth consecutive year came as a surprise to the Grizzlies, who have faced the Thunder in the postseason in three of the last four years.

Memphis made its first Western Conference Finals appearance in franchise history in 2013 after eliminating the Thunder in five games. That year, the Thunder were without point guard Russell Westbrook, who sustained a season-ending knee injury in the playoffs’ opening round.

“I feel bad for him,” Grizzlies center Marc Gasol said of Durant’s injury following Friday morning’s shoot around in American Airlines Center. “Great player. Special guy. Special player. I got to know him a little bit during the All-Star weekend. But I feel bad for him. I know how much he loves the game and how much he wants to be out there. And I feel bad for him.”

Like Gasol, Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley said the news of Durant likely being shut down the rest of the year came as a shock, considering he had been hearing that Durant was recouping comfortably from the foot injury.

Since Durant underwent surgery last month in attempt to alleviate soreness and discomfort in his right foot that was being caused by a screw inserted in October during a procedure to repair a Jones fracture, Russell Westbrook has played arguably the best basketball of his seven-year career. Currently the NBA’s leading scorer, averaging 27.8 points per game, Westbrook has been nothing short of remarkable of late, having recorded a league-best nine triple doubles, his latest of which came in OKC’s 123–115 home win Friday night over Atlanta. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Since Durant underwent surgery last month in attempt to alleviate soreness and discomfort in his right foot that was being caused by a screw inserted in October during a procedure to repair a Jones fracture, Russell Westbrook has played arguably the best basketball of his seven-year career. Currently the NBA’s leading scorer, averaging 27.8 points per game, Westbrook has been nothing short of remarkable of late, having recorded a league-best nine triple doubles, his latest of which came in OKC’s 123–115 home win Friday night over Atlanta. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

“I have not heard about it. That’s news to me right now,” Conley said.

Since Durant underwent surgery last month in attempt to alleviate soreness and discomfort in his right foot that was being caused by a screw inserted in October during a procedure to repair a Jones fracture, Westbrook has played arguably the best basketball of his seven-year career.

Currently the NBA’s leading scorer, averaging 27.8 points per game, Westbrook has been nothing short of remarkable of late, having recorded a league-best nine triple doubles, his latest of which came in OKC’s 123–115 home win Friday night over the Atlanta Hawks (36 points, 14 assists, and 10 rebounds).

So resilient Westbrook has been after what was an injury-ridden season last year for the former UCLA star that he has emerged as a legitimate candidate for league’s Most Valuable Player.

However, earlier this week, Westbrook reiterated that individual accolades are the least of his concerns, especially considering the Thunder are battling for their playoff lives during the season’s stretch run. At 39-30, OKC owns a two-game lead over ninth-place New Orleans for the pivotal eighth spot in the West.

“I don’t know,” said Westbrook, when asked if he’s playing the best basketball of his career. I take it one day at a time, man, and keep doing what I’m doing. I have no take (on the MVP race). My job is to come out and play at a high level every single night.”

But whether Westbrook and Co. will have Durant back for what figures to be an intense postseason in the always rugged Western Conference remains unclear.

As of Friday, team officials hinted that a Thunder playoff run this year likely will take place without arguably their best player.

“You know, it sucks to have any kind of injury,” Conley said. “And the situation (Durant) is going through, I know he wants to be back on the court. So that’s tough for him and the organization. But I’m sure they’re doing whatever’s best for him and the team.”

DrePicAndre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. Based in Dallas, Texas, Johnson covers the NBA Southwest Division. To reach Johnson, send an email to andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

 

Former prep baseball standout Kali Payton III thriving as a motivational speaker

KaliLike a number of his peers, Kali Payton III would be the first to tell you he has endured his share of hardships and turmoil.

For starters, Payton was raised in what he describes as one of America’s most dangerous, poverty-stricken establishments, the John DeShields housing projects in East St, Louis, Illinois.

And, as a youngster — eight years old to be exact — he and his family wound up on the wrong side of some horrific news when word spread that his father was murdered.

Fast forward to a few years later, Payton still found himself having to weather an assortment of tumultuous encounters — occurrences that given how much this vibrant 33-year-old ex-military veteran has flourished in recent years, is valid proof why he has steadfastly taken on a newfound disposition on life.

“I have failed in business nine times and lost two homes to foreclosure. I celebrated my 21st birthday in Afghanistan in 2002,” said Payton, an Air Force veteran, said during a recent interview.

Fortunately for Payton, a former East St. Louis High baseball standout, his slew of obstacles are what ultimately inspired him to assume yet another venture, one that undoubtedly will enhance and aid others to maximize their potential.

A resident of Fayetteville, North Carolina, Payton is a Motivational Speaker and Life/Business Coach for Kali Is Speaking, an endeavor that has benefited him mightily, considering he has emerged as a fixture in various establishments across the country.

To his credit, Payton has spoken and his put his motivational skills on display in places such as his native home state of Illinois, North Carolina, and Florida, among others — a list that figures to expand in the foreseeable future.

A former East St. Louis All-Star catcher who wore former Major Leaguer Mike Piazza’s jersey number, Payton acknowledges that his competitive drive through baseball essentially fueled his desire to become a motivational speaker and life coach.

Among the reasons is that in spite of the array of curve balls life has often dealt him, he says that isn’t a reason for individuals — especially those from downtrodden communities like him — to live beneath their privileges.

“I had raw talent as a power hitter,” Payton explains. “But as the competition increased, my effectiveness decreased. I just couldn’t figure out why. Then my high school coach, Mr. Brown, taught me that I didn’t need to lead the team in home runs but in RBI’s. I batted clean up, so it was my job to make enough contact to make sure other players advance and either score or get in position to score.

“What I do in my business today is the exact same thing,” Payton continued. “I use my life experiences to help others advance or position themselves to reach their destinations. What I love most is knowing that I was chosen to impact the lives of others in a positive way. It blows my mind each time I think about it.”

Arguably Payton’s single, most underlying objective as a motivational speaker and life coach is to empower others to connect with their life’s work — or their purpose, of sorts — a life-changing attribute that was instilled in him by his godfather, Lee Coleman II.

“He inspired me to live out my full potential and serve humanity with my whole heart,” Payton said.

Fortunately for Payton, he’s savoring the purpose for which he was created, considering his latest endeavor is starting to come full circle, thus embraced by countless individuals in the Fayetteville area and other portions of the country.

Among the reasons is that Payton conducts a weekly class at nearby Jesus Peace Ministries in Fayetteville, which is an economic empowerment session for people who aspire to become entrepreneurs.

As for his itinerary, he is scheduled to teach youths on how to overcome the fear of public speaking as part of a Spring Break camp that is scheduled for April 6-10.

Given the success he has enjoyed in recent years, it’s safe to assume that Payton has adjusted comfortably as a motivational speaker and life coach, in large part because he has functioned in such a commendable role for two years. Aside from that, he has been an accomplished licensed minster for nearly nine years, an accolade that has contributed greatly to his latest endeavor.

In other words, Payton doesn’t shy away from the notion that he welcomes putting his skills on display before sizable crowds. Given the adversities he has managed to conquer during his life, he’d be the first to admit that he was built to handle such work.

“I just don’t believe any person should live a life that they are not happy with,” Payton said. “We are all created for the same thing…to serve humanity. Serve with our gifts, talents, and abilities with the sole purpose of gaining resources that will expand our platform. Ultimately, we must press repeat and do it all over again…a simple reason of why we all exist.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information on Kali Is Speaking or to contact him for a speaking engagement, check out Kali Payton III at:

www.regeneratemypurpose.com

DrePicAndre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. Based in Dallas, Texas, Johnson also covers the NBA Southwest Division. To reach Johnson, send email to andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Dallas-area youth hoopster Kaelen Jackson excelling despite mom’s long work hours

KAELENDALLAS — Cosha Jackson customarily goes above and beyond to ensure her family is well taken care of.

So much, in fact, that in many instances, Jackson works as many as six days a week.

Still, although working consumes much of her time, Jackson makes certain she bolts her job in time to attend games for her son, Dallas-area amateur basketball player, Kaelen Damon Jackson.

“He started playing in his mama’s backyard at the age of three,” Cosha said during a recent interview. “Not until the age of five he began playing with his first team, (the Beckley Bears).”

Despite being mostly an undersized player ever since he began playing competitive basketball, Kaelen still has proven to hold his own on the court as a marquee player for Dallas’ NorthStars 10-and-under team.

Nicknamed “K-Man,” Kaelon’s key contributions helped steer the NorthStars to an impressive 13-3 mark that was culminated recently with an elusive championship.

“I knew he could do it despite his height. I was and still am a proud mother,” Cosha said her son’s display this past season for the NorthStars.

In assessing her son’s success as a rising athlete, Cosha credits the NorthStars coaching staff for aiding her in ensuring her son goes full throttle, particularly when her job often conflicts with getting him to and from practice.

“I work six days a week,” Cosha said. “Kaelen has great coaches that make sure he gets to practices and to games when I am unable to get him there. But I make sure that I leave work, because I never miss a game. I am my child’s No. 1 fan.”

And never mind that amid the long hours in the workplace, Cosha’s has to swiftly assume another hat — that of the proverbial basketball mom.KAELEN2

“But when I see the enjoyment that my son has when he is on the court, being tired goes out the window,” Cosha said. “I’d do anything for his happiness. That’s what makes me excited. I am overjoyed as a parent. You try to put your kids into activities to keep them busy, and it’s a plus when they excel in that activity.”

A 10-year-old fifth grader at Gateway Charter School, Kaelen assumes the point guard position for a NorthStars team who harbors the  motto: “Hard work beat talent if talent fails to work hard.”

For this vibrant, speedy amateur athlete, without question his immense talents on the court have gone virtually unnoticed, a trend he says hopes will afford him to someday repay his mother for the tireless efforts she has invested in him, on and away from the hardwood.

“Because I am good at it,” said Kaelen, when asked why does he love basketball so much. “And I like the feeling I get when I’m on the court. I get excited.”

More than anything, Kaelen acknowledges, looking out into the stands and seeing his mother’s presence is what ultimately fuels his desire to help his peers be successful.

“My mom says I can be anything I want to be,” said Kaelen, explaining the best advice his mother frequently gives him. “I want to play in the NBA when I get older, so she told me to work hard and it will come true.”

However, landing on basketball grandest stage won’t merely come easily, Cosha says often tells her son.

“I always tell Kaelen nothing in life is going to be giving to him,” Cosha said. “You have to work hard to get what you want. The sky’s the limit (for him) because he has dedication. His dream is to play professional basketball. As long as he never gives up on himself, his dream will become a reality. I tell Kaelen, ‘Never put limits on yourself.’ Whatever he set his mind to do, I know Kaelen will achieve it.”

Among the reasons is that his mom demonstrates that daily.

So much for being so exhausted after working long hours.

DrePicAndre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. Based in Dallas, Texas, Johnson also covers the NBA Southwest Division. To reach Johnson, send email to andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

 

Univ. of Southwest basketball standout Anitria Flowers aiming to attract pro scouts

BLOSSOMING FLOWER --- Anitria Flowers, a junior college transfer and the University of Southwest's second-tallest player, was the catalyst of a team that made continuous stride this season. (Photos courtesy of USW Athletics)

BLOSSOMING FLOWER — Anitria Flowers, a junior college transfer and the University of Southwest’s second-tallest player, was the catalyst of a team that made continuous stride this season. (Photos courtesy of USW Athletics)

DALLAS — When logging on to the University of Southwest’s women’s basketball website, the first photo you’ll see is that of Anitria Flowers.

Flowers, a junior college transfer and the Lady Mustangs’ second-tallest player, is the catalyst of a team that made continuous strides this season.

Southwest’s season ended in Red River Athletic Conference loss to nationally-ranked Our Lady Of The Lake University April 28. While the Lady Mustangs’ 6-26 campaign suggests, among other things that they struggled considerably this year, in essence, it was a season in which Southwest first-year coach Jamene Caldwell’s team is building for the future.

That future, by all accounts, will surely involve Flowers, a 5-foot-11 combo guard who figures to help steer the team in the right direction for what she pledges will be a memorable senior campaign next.

A player whose favorite quote — at least according to Southwest’s website — is, “Talent is God given. Be humble, fame is manmade. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful,” Flowers doesn’t shy away from the notion that she’s destined to not only help propel the Lady Mustangs from years of futility, but she’s also vows to attract the attention of WNBA scouts and general managers by the time she finishes her collegiate hoops career.

Having transferred to Southwest in Hobbs, New Mexico after a stellar two-year stint at Howard Junior College, Flowers wasted little time making her presence for a Lady Mustang team that finished the season on a favorable note when it won two of its final three outings.

Having transferred to Southwest in Hobbs, New Mexico after a stellar two-year stint at Howard Junior College, Flowers wasted little time making her presence for a Lady Mustang team that finished the season on a favorable note when it won two of its final three outings.

Having transferred to USW in Hobbs, New Mexico after a stellar two-year stint at Howard Junior College in nearby Big Spring, Texas, Flowers wasted little time making her presence felt for a Lady Mustang team that finished the season on a favorable note when it won two of its final three outings.

A speedy two-way guard, Flowers was aggressive on both ends of the floor for USW, especially on the offensive end, where even as the team’s floor general and facilitator, she appeared assertive against elite talent, penetrating hard to the basket much like she did during her days of running the show as a prep standout for Sundown High in Texas.

“I love basketball because it’s a sport that you can control the outcome and it is structured but you have freedom to show what you can do,” Flowers said during a recent interview. “I have always loved basketball and always will. When I’m on the court whether in practice or a game or just shooting around nothing else matters and it’s just peaceful.”

Because she often presented match-up problems for the opposition, Flowers evolved as one of USW’s most efficient defenders, often hustling her way for block shots and steals — key attributes Caldwell’s believes undoubtedly will be signs of things to come next year.

“Anitria has progressed tremendously during the course of just this season alone,” Caldwell said. “I cannot attest to her work previously to my arriving at USW since this is my first year. However, in the short amount of time that I have been privilege to coach Anitria, she has developed into an aggressive offensive player that can really score at will. She is also one of the best shot blockers I have had the opportunity to coach. She is what I call a quiet assassin on the court. At the end of it, you don’t even realize how her stat line completely changed the game. I know she will (work hard) throughout the summer and into next season and she will be ready for an unforgettable senior year.”

A speedy two-way guard, Flowers was aggressive on both ends of the floor for Southwest, especially on the offensive end, where even as the team’s floor general and facilitator, she appeared assertive against elite talent, penetrating hard to the basket much like she did during her days of running the show as a prep standout for Sundown High in Texas.

A speedy two-way guard, Flowers was aggressive on both ends of the floor for Southwest, especially on the offensive end, where even as the team’s floor general and facilitator, she appeared assertive against elite talent, penetrating hard to the basket much like she did during her days of running the show as a prep standout for Sundown High in Texas.

Among Flowers’ grandest supporters has been her mother, Michelle Flowers. A current resident of Sundown, Texas who often travels hundreds of miles to witness her daughter in action.

“The first time she picked up the basketball, it’s like she had a built in naturalness for the sport and I knew then she would do great things in basketball,” Michelle Flowers said. “When it’s game day I wake up pumped and ready to go, I’m anxious all day because I’m ready to see her play. I love every minute watching her play as a child. Her senior year (of high school) I went to every game. When I found out she was going to play college ball, I smiled from ear to ear and told her she deserved it because she worked so hard to get there. She lives in the gym even when she comes home for weekend and holiday visits. I’m beyond happy for her. I want to see her excel in life.”

As she prepares for what figures to be a memorable senior season, Anitria Flowers’ primary objective, she said, will remain the same.

That is, she pledges to leave it all out on the floor, thus make her mother proud, just as she’s done since she first reached for a basketball at five years of age.

PRO HOOPS MATERIAL? A player whose favorite quote --- at least according to Southwest’s website --- is, "Talent is God given. Be humble, fame is manmade.  Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful," Flowers doesn’t shy away from the notion that she’s destined to not only help propel the Lady Mustangs from years of futility, but she’s also vows to attract the attention of WNBA scouts and general managers by the time she finishes her collegiate career.

PRO HOOPS MATERIAL? A player whose favorite quote — at least according to Southwest’s website — is, “Talent is God given. Be humble, fame is manmade. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful,” Flowers doesn’t shy away from the notion that she’s destined to not only help propel the Lady Mustangs from years of futility, but she’s also vows to attract the attention of WNBA scouts and general managers by the time she finishes her collegiate career.

“I will graduate college with my criminal Justice Degree and continue to work hard in the gym to better myself so I have a chance to play at the professional level,” Anitria Flowers said. “My mother has very proud of my grades all throughout school and I’ll continue to keep them up and make her happy. I always keep in touch with my family and that is something that is a must. Family is so important to me. Without them it’s difficult to accomplish all that I already have.”

Stay tuned. Chances are the college basketball world hasn’t seen the last of this kid.

DrePicAndre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. Based in Dallas, Texas, Johnson covers the NBA Southwest Division. To reach Johnson, send an email to andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

 

 

Quincy Pondexter on recent trade from Memphis Grizzlies: ‘I’ll never forget it’

NBA SOUTHWEST DIVISION REPORT

DALLAS — Quincy Pondexter on Monday was asked if he has any hard feelings toward the Memphis Grizzlies after the organization dealt him to the New Orleans Pelicans in early January.

CALLING HIM OUT? When asked on Monday night's game at Dallas whom he sensed were among those within the Grizzlies organization who felt it was best to part ways with him, New Orleans Pelicans shooting guard Quincy Pondexter went as far as to hint that Memphis coach Dave Joerger initiated the trade.  “That’s the way it seems, right?” Pondexter said. (Photos by Steve Mitchell/Getty Images NBAE)

CALLING HIM OUT? When asked on Monday night’s game at Dallas whom he sensed were among those within the Grizzlies organization who felt it was best to part ways with him, New Orleans Pelicans shooting guard Quincy Pondexter went as far as to hint that Memphis coach Dave Joerger initiated the trade.
“That’s the way it seems, right?” Pondexter said. (Photos by Steve Mitchell/Getty Images NBAE)

“I can’t answer that,” Pondexter told MemphiSport.com prior to the Pelicans’ game at the Dallas Mavericks.

Given his unorthodox body language as he sat in front of his locker in the visitors’ locker room in American Airlines Center, coupled with the notion that Pondexter admittedly anticipated a lengthy tenure with a Memphis team that boasts NBA championship aspirations, it’s safe to assume that the recently-acquired New Orleans small forward is indeed harboring ill-feelings over how his stint with the Grizzlies ended.

Now in his fourth NBA seasons, the 26-year-old Pondexter appeared in 168 games for the Grizzlies before he was involved in a three-team trade on January 12. The Pelicans announced that they traded guard Austin Rivers to the Boston Celtics and rookie Russ Smith to the Grizzlies in exchange for Pondexter and a future second round pick.

The move reunited Pondexter with the team to which he was traded moments after he was drafted 26th overall by Oklahoma City in 2010.

“It was extremely hurtful,” Pondexter said of the Grizzlies electing to trade him before the season’s halfway point. “You know, it’s somewhere I thought would be home for me. But it’s a couple of people in the organization who didn’t feel the same way and I’ll never forget it.”

When asked whom he sensed were among those within the Grizzlies organization who felt it was best to part ways with him, Pondexter went as far as to hint that Memphis coach Dave Joerger initiated the trade.

“That’s the way it seems, right?” Pondexter said.

Surely, Pondexter and Joerger have had their share of disagreements, most notably last year during a Grizzlies home game against the Brooklyn Nets.

A game in which Pondexter was seen staring down Joerger several times after making a number of key second-half shots before finishing with 22 points, Pondexter was ultimately disciplined for his unprofessional gestures. During timeouts, Pondexter could be seen uttering profanity as a way of showing his displeasure with Joerger’s decision to bench him.

Having recently been installed as a starter for a Pelicans, who trail Oklahoma City by just one game for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, Pondexter has wasted little time making his presence felt. Arguably his best outing since being dealt to New Orleans came February 25 against visiting Brooklyn during which he scored a career-high 25 points.

Having recently been installed as a starter for a Pelicans, who trail Oklahoma City by just one game for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, Pondexter (left) has wasted little time making his presence felt alongside star center Anthony Davis. Arguably his best outing since being dealt to New Orleans came February 25 against visiting Brooklyn during which he scored a career-high 25 points.

Prior to that game, Pondexter had played sparingly for the Grizzlies, averaging 18 minutes during what was an injured-ridden season for the former University of Washington star.

Pondexter on Monday reiterated that he has taken ownership of the situation and subsequent fallout with Joerger, saying he’s sorry for such behavior he believes contributed to his recent trade from Memphis.

“You know, I’ll never forget that night,” Pondexter said. “I made a bad decision. I was immature at the time. I’ll never forget the mistake I made, staring him down and showing him up. I felt like I should have been playing. But at the end of the day, he had the last say and I’m not there anymore.”

While Pondexter believes Joerger is mainly responsible for his unceremonious exit out of Memphis, he sensed there were others within the organization who sided with his former coach.

“There was a couple who probably didn’t want me there,” Pondexter said. “And I wanted to end my career there. That’s how much I love the city.”

CHANGE OF HEART --- For a while, it seemed that Pondexter was a right fit for the Grizzlies, who rewarded the Fresno, California native with a four-year extension in just third full season with the team. Prior to that year, Pondexter averaged a career-best 21.1 minutes per game and played a pivotal role for a Grizz team that made its first ever Western Conference Finals appearance. (Getty Images photo)

CHANGE OF HEART — For a while, it seemed that Pondexter was a right fit for the Grizzlies, who rewarded the Fresno, California native with a four-year extension in just third full season with the team. Prior to that year, Pondexter averaged a career-best 21.1 minutes per game and played a pivotal role for a Grizz team that made its first ever Western Conference Finals appearance. (Getty Images photo)

For a while, it seemed that Pondexter was a right fit for the Grizzlies, who rewarded the Fresno, California native with a four-year extension in just his third full season with the team. Prior to that year, Pondexter averaged a career-best 21.1 minutes per game and played a pivotal role for a Grizz team that made its first ever Western Conference Finals appearance.

“I signed a four-year extension because I loved (Memphis) so much,” Pondexter said. “It was painful at first. But, of course, you know you live and learn and I’ve got another opportunity here.”

To his credit, though, it’s an opportunity of which Pondexter has taken full advantage much like his stint in Memphis.

Having recently been installed as a starter for the Pelicans, who trail Oklahoma City by just one game for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, Pondexter has wasted little time making his presence felt.

Arguably his best outing since being dealt to New Orleans came February 25 against visiting Brooklyn during which he scored a career-high 25 points.

“He could be a two-way player where he could defend his position and other positions,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said of Pondexter. “He’s shown the ability on certain nights where he could knock down shots and make plays for us. He has shown intangibles, whether it be just know how to guard a guy, using his length to guard or contest shots, and knowing how to guard. But he’s been in a lot of big games in Memphis, so that’s something I can’t give him. He has that experience.”

Among the things about which Pondexter is appreciative are the Pelicans offering him the chance to continue what he started in Memphis. Now that he’s becoming acclimated in New Orleans, he contends his unceremonious departure from Memphis is where it belongs.

Behind him.

“I’m happy here,” Pondexter said.

Fielding the question as if he expected it.

DrePicAndre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. Based in Dallas, Texas, Johnson covers the NBA Southwest Division. To reach Johnson, send an email to andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Randolph on Conley for All-Star appearance: ‘I want the young fella to get in there’

DALLAS — No one, it seems, is more impressed with Mike Conley’s body of work this season than Zach Randolph.

The Memphis Grizzlies power forward, in fact, has been complimentary of Conley’s display since the early stages of the season.

Tuesday night was no exception.

BOLD PREDICTION --- Following the shorthanded Grizzlies’ decisive 109-90 win against the Dallas Mavericks Tuesday night in American Airlines Center, Grizzlies star Zach Randolph hinted that he anticipates point guard Mike Conley to be named to the All-Star team, a milestone he’s been seeking for some time. (LM Otero, Getty Images)

BOLD PREDICTION — Following the shorthanded Grizzlies’ decisive 109-90 win against the Dallas Mavericks Tuesday night in American Airlines Center, Grizzlies star Zach Randolph hinted that he anticipates
point guard Mike Conley to be named to the All-Star team, a milestone he’s been seeking for some time. (LM Otero, Getty Images)

Following the shorthanded Grizzlies’ decisive 109-90 win against the Dallas Mavericks in American Airlines Center in which the team was without Conley, Randolph hinted that he anticipates the Grizzlies’ starting point guard to achieve a milestone he’s been seeking for some time.

“It’s big when you can play like that without your All-Star point guard,” Randolph told reporters after posting a game-high 22 points on 10 of 15 shooting and 10 rebounds against Dallas.

While Randolph doesn’t shy away from the notion that he would like to see Conley, his teammate of six years, earn his first All-Star appearance of his career, the seven-year veteran won’t know for certain until Thursday when the East and West reserves are announced.

Just as it has been in recent years, making the All-Star team undoubtedly will be monumental for Conley, in large part because the Western Conference is loaded with a slew of All-Star-caliber point guards such as Damian Lillard, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook, among others — all of whom have played in the NBA’s annual midseason showcase.

The 64th annual All-Star Game is February 15 in Madison Square Garden.

While many media pundits believed Conley should have been named to the All-Star team last year, the 27-year-old Fayetteville, Arkansas native certainly has made a strong case to earn a spot for the West this season.

At 33-12, the Grizzlies currently own the NBA’s third-best record and are second in the Western Conference standings behind Golden State. Add to the fact that Conley, Memphis’ second-leading scorer, has been as assertive on both ends of the floor as he’s ever been since he entered the NBA ranks, and it’s no wonder many believe this year could very well be his to crash the All-Star party along with fellow Grizzlies teammate Marc Gasol.

A 7-foot-1 Spaniard, Gasol will be making his second All-Star appearance and his first as a starter.

“You know, it’ll be nice if it happens,” said Randolph, when asked if making his third All-Star appearance was one of his personal goals in this, his 13th season. “I said the other day in Memphis I prefer it be Mike Conley. He deserves it. You know, I’ve been there before. So it’ll be nice if someone else from our team makes it and hopefully it’s him.”

CASE CLOSED? While many media pundits believed Conley should have been named to the All-Star team last year, the 27-year-old Fayetteville, Arkansas native certainly has made a strong case to earn spot for the West this season.

CASE CLOSED? While many media pundits believed Conley should have been named to the All-Star team last year, the 27-year-old Fayetteville, Arkansas native certainly has made a strong case to earn spot for the West this season.

According to a four-panel of CBSSports.com writers who cover the NBA, neither listed Conley as an All-Star reserve in a story that was released Wednesday afternoon. During a preseason interview with MemphiSport, however, Conley reiterated that making his first All-Star appearance was something about which he would strive for this year and that being left off the roster “would suck.”

“Obviously, I want to make my first All-Star appearance,” Conley said.

However, whether the former Ohio State star will be shown some love Valentine’s Day weekend in the Big Apple as a member of the West roster remains a mystery.

At least until sometime Thursday.

“It’ll be nice,” Randolph said of Conley being christen an All-Star reserve. “It’s a lot of politics in the All-Star Game. But I’m not going to lose any sleep (if I don’t make it). Like I said, I want the young fella to get in there.”

Still, regardless of how things stack up when the All-Star reserves are announced, Randolph said nothing overshadows the bigger aspirations for a team that figures to be a legitimate threat to make its first NBA Finals appearances this year.

“Right now, we’re focusing on winning and that’s our big picture right now…especially mine,” Randolph said. “We’re playing good. Our team is playing good. Our bench is playing good. So that’s our main focus right now.”

Something even the team’s starting point guard would agree with as the season progresses.

All-Star appearance or not.

DrePicAndre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. Based in Dallas, Texas, Johnson covers the NBA Southwest Division. To reach Johnson, send email to andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

 

Former Memphis Grizzlies guard Wayne Ellington rejoins Lakers after murder of his father

DALLAS — As his eyes began to flood with tears, Wayne Ellington sat in front of his locker in the visiting locker room Friday night in the American Airlines Center and told reporters something his father had inspired him to do ever since he first picked up a basketball as a child growing up in the outskirts of Philadelphia.

Former Memphis Grizzlies shooting guard Wayne Ellington rejoined the Lakers Thursday, less than two weeks after the death of his father November 9 in the Philadelphia. Wayne Ellington, Sr. was found in his car with a gunshot wound to the head by an unknown assailant. (Photo by  Juan O'Campo/NBAE via Getty Images)

Former Memphis Grizzlies shooting guard Wayne Ellington rejoined the Lakers Thursday, less than two weeks after the death of his father November 9 in the Philadelphia. Wayne Ellington, Sr. was found in his car with a gunshot wound to the head by an unknown assailant. (Photos by Juan O’Campo/NBAE via Getty Images)

“I will get through it,” Ellington said. “Obviously, it’s a situation where you’ve got to get through it.”

Ellington was alluding to the death of his 57-year-old father November 9 in the Philadelphia. Ellington’s father — also named Wayne — was found in his car with a gunshot wound to the head by an unknown assailant, news that sent shock waves to Ellington and the Lakers organization moments before the team was about to face the Charlotte Hornets.

Ellington, 27, who signed with the Lakers after training camp in September, was granted an indefinite leave of absence, but rejoined the team Thursday, one day after the Lakers’ win at Houston.

Although Ellington participated in a pregame shootaround, Lakers coach Byron Scott told reporters before Friday’s game against Dallas that Ellington likely would not see action.

“He’s okay,” Scott said of Ellington. “I think he’s trying to get back familiar with us and familiar with his surroundings. I think the more he’s with us, the better he’ll be.”

Ellington was informed of his father’s death following the Lakers’ November 9 win over the Hornets at the Staples Center.

So far, no arrests have been reported.

Ellington He said he plans to dedicate the rest of the season to his father by writing his name on his sneakers.

Ellington He said he plans to dedicate the rest of the season to his father by writing his name on his sneakers.

While addressing the media Friday, a mostly teary-eyed Ellington recalled how instrumental his father had been during his basketball career, most notably during his days at the University of North Carolina and when he entered the NBA ranks after leading the Tar Heels to the national championship in 2009.

“You know, this is what he wanted for me,” Ellington said, when asked what memorable lesson his father taught him. “While at Carolina, you know, he was the guy who was always talking about tradition. He said when you go to Carolina, you look up and see all the banners. He was so ecstatic when I signed here before training camp. He was telling me how proud of me he is. He was saying, ‘You’re back in that same Carolina-type situation.’ He was like, ‘I really feel like this is the spot for you.’”

While several Laker players expressed their disappointment after learning of the death of Ellington’s father, the six-year pro said he was especially pleased with the support shown by Scott, the Lakers first-year coach for whom Ellington played during his brief stint with Cleveland last season.

Drafted 28th overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2009, Ellington also played briefly for Memphis and Dallas.

“Coach Scott has been a great for me,” Ellington said. “He was great for me in Cleveland as well. When I played in Memphis, we had a lot of guys in the rotation. We were deep every night and I wasn’t playing as much. And then when I came to Cleveland and was playing for him, that kind of gave me a boost of energy, that boost of confidence. And that helped me and it was the same thing when I got here. He’s a guy who has tremendous confidence in me and I thrive off that.”

Besides Scott, Ellington said Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant contacted him regularly to show support during his nearly two-week absence from the team. Also, Ellington fielded phone calls from former Grizzly teammates Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph.

“He reached out almost every day,” Ellington said of Bryant. “It was unbelievable as our leader. Obviously, the season didn’t start off the way we liked. But we’re family here and (the Lakers) made me feel like that.”

While Ellington is expected to see action Sunday night when the Lakers host Denver, the Wynnewood, Pennsylvania native said he sensed earlier this week it was time to reunite with his teammates. He said he plans to dedicate the rest of the season to his father by writing his name on his sneakers.

Ellington has appeared in six of the Lakers’ 13 games, averaging 7.8 points and 3.2 rebounds. He scored a season-best 13 points in 25 minutes in an October 9 loss to Phoenix.

“It was just a feeling,” said Ellington, explaining his decision to return to the team. “And in talking to my family, they kind of pushed me as well. They wanted me to get back to doing what I love to do and to take my mind off of it. Being here has been a lot easier for me. So yeah, man, I’m leaving it all out there every single day, every time I step out there on that floor. I’m going to do something special for him.”

DrePicAndre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. Based in Dallas, Texas, Johnson covers the NBA Southwest Division. To reach Johnson, send an email to andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.

Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley: ‘Obviously, I want to make my first All-Star appearance’

EDITOR’S NOTE: When Mike Conley, Jr. entered the NBA ranks in 2007, he was widely viewed as an unproven rookie and the son of Olympic gold and silver medalist triple jumper Mike Conley, Sr. Now in his seventh professional season for the Memphis Grizzlies, Conley, the longest-tenured player on the roster, has emerged as arguably the most underappreciated point guard in the NBA. No doubt, the 27-year-old Conley is the catalyst of a Grizzlies team that boasts the league’s best record and is a legitimate contender to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals this year. During a recent exclusive interview with MemphiSport NBA Southwest Division reporter Andre Johnson, Conley spoke about the lofty expectations for this year’s team as well as assessed what has been a stellar career for the native of Fayetteville, Arkansas. Here are 11 questions for No. 11.

BOLD CONFESSION --- Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley doesn't shy away from the notion that he's aiming to make his first All-Star appearance in this, his seventh NBA season. Conley is Memphis' second-leading scorer, averaging 16.6 points per game. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE Getty Images

BOLD CONFESSION — Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley doesn’t shy away from the notion that he’s aiming to make his first All-Star appearance in this, his seventh NBA season. Conley is Memphis’ second-leading scorer, averaging 16.6 points per game. (Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE Getty Images

ANDRE: A lot has been said about the organization drafting Memphian Jarnell Stokes back in June. What’s so special about his presence on the team?
MIKE: Jarnell’s done a great job for us since Day 1. He has brought energy to our team. You know, he’s a hard-nosed worker and he wants to get better. He has two great big men to learn from in Marc (Gasol) and Zach (Randolph) and even Kosta (Koufos) and Jon (Leuer). You know, those guys have a wealth of experience and can help Jarnell. I think he’s done a great job with the minutes he’s been given. He really hasn’t been able to show much out there as he wants to. But for the most part, in his short time, he’s done a great job, knowing the plays, where to be on the floor, being in the right spots and capitalizing off that.

ANDRE: Zach Randolph decided in the offseason to return to the organization. There were many speculations as to whether he might move on, but he’s back in a Grizzlies uniform. In your estimation, how special is it having Zach back?
MIKE: It is huge. He’s the head of this ship, man. He always will be. He’s made this team what it is today. So without him, we wouldn’t be here. With him, we’re like family, so it’s awesome to have him back.

ANDRE: Did the Grizzlies get better in the offseason?
MIKE: I thought we did get better in the offseason. And not only because of (the acquisition) Vince Carter and the rookies, but a lot of guys have added a little bit more to their game. So we’re looking forward to a lot of guys stepping up and taking on different roles. They’ll have more on their plate, so hopefully that’ll improve our team and give us a chance to make a deep run.

ANDRE: Much had been said about your constant progress last year, particularly before the All-Star break. In fact, there were a lot of national media prognosticators who sensed you should have gotten serious consideration to represent the West in the All-Star Game. But because the West is so deep at that position with the Chris Pauls and Damian Lillards of the world, you weren’t selected. Do you feel at this stage in your career you’re getting the respect you deserve?
MIKE: Um…slowly. You know, it’s a journey, man. It’s been a journey for me just trying to get better every year and getting attention by adding more to my game and proving that I can play. So I think people are starting to understand my style of play and I just want to keep getting better and not worry about whether people will respect me or not. I just want to go out there and play the best basketball I can.

HUGE IMPACT --- A majority of Conley's seven NBA seasons has been spent under the direction Lionel Hollins. Hollins coached the Grizzlies from 2009-2013 before being hired as the Brooklyn Nets' coach in July.

HUGE IMPACT — A majority of Conley’s seven NBA seasons have been spent under the direction Lionel Hollins. Hollins coached the Grizzlies from 2009-2013 before being hired as the Brooklyn Nets’ coach in July.

ANDRE: Obviously, this team would like to finish in the top three or top four in the Western Conference standings heading into the postseason. But what are your personal expectations in this, your seventh NBA season?
MIKE: I want to be a better leader. I want to be a better leader for this team, want to be someone everybody can count on. Obviously, I want to make my first All-Star appearance. You know, everyone wants to be an All-Star. But I’m beyond that. I just want to win. If we win, I think we’ll get the attention we deserve.

ANDRE: Now, of course, (Grizzlies head coach Dave) Joerger is back after much reshuffling in the front office in the offseason. Describe your relationship with your coach.
MIKE: It was good that Dave came back because we didn’t need a new rotation of coaches coming in. We need that stability. He’s been here pretty much my entire career and just to have him here as the head coach two years in a row will be great. After his first season, he’s going to be much better.

ANDRE: Speaking of head coaches, Lionel (former Grizzlies coach Hollins) has resurfaced in the head-coaching ranks in the league. Of course, a lot of people felt he should have landed a head coaching job last year. Lionel was very, very big on you, particularly when people said negative things about your style of play. How happy were you when he resurfaced in the NBA?
MIKE: I was very happy for him. I texted him, called him and congratulated him. It was well-deserved, man. He’s a great coach. I know they (Brooklyn Nets) got a good one and he’s looking forward to that opportunity and he’s going to make the best of it.

ANDRE: In terms of NBA point guards, you’ve made a name for yourself. Clearly, your stock has risen and people are now starting to respect your overall body of work. But who are among of the NBA point guards Mike Conley likes to watch?
MIKE: Who Mike Conley likes to watch? Well, I like to watch the ones on all 32 teams.

ANDRE: Of course, I can’t let you off the hook that easily, Mike. Tell me. Who do you like to watch the most?
MIKE: Well, every team has a great point guard. You have athletic points like Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose. You have some smaller points…Isaiah Thomas is a good one and plays well. Eric Bledsoe is another good one. So you have a lot of good ones. But I can tell you it’s tough to play against them. It’s not too much to watch them. But I have to deal with them on the court.

ANDRE: Is there any player on the team you hang out with on a regular basis?
MIKE: I pretty much hang out with all of them. We try to do as much together as we can. But Marc is probably the closet one I’m with.

ANDRE: Do you expect to be more vocal this year as the Grizzlies’ floor general?
MIKE: I do. I figured I’ve earned the respect to do that, just coming out and being assertive and more vocal because they believe in me running the show.

ANDRE: Here’s a bonus question, Mike. Of course, you’re an Ohio State man after having played two seasons for the Buckeyes. This is seemingly a down year for Michigan football. But I’ve got to ask you this as these schools prepare to meet in a few weeks. Ohio State or Michigan?
MIKE: Ohio State, man.

DrePicAndre Johnson is a senior writer for MemphiSport. Based in Dallas, Texas, Johnson covers the NBA Southwest Division. To reach Johnson, send an email to andre@memphisport.net. Also, follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.