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NBA PM: Damian Lillard as MVP?

Can Damian Lillard carry the Blazers to a high seed and win the Most Valuable Player award?

Cody Taylor

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It hasn’t even been a week since the NBA season started and we’ve already seen plenty of incredible performances.

Russell Westbrook has already dropped two triple-doubles, Anthony Davis recorded a 50-point outing on Opening Night and LeBron James turned in a triple-double of his own. If the first week is any indication, this season could go down as one of the most memorable in recent years.

One player who has certainly made his own headlines through the first three games of the season is Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard. Given the outstanding performances of Westbrook, Davis and James, it seems as though Lillard’s play so far has gone a bit unnoticed.

Had those players not gotten off to incredible starts, Lillard would be the one stealing all of the headlines. Instead, his averages of 35 points, eight rebounds, 5.3 assists and one steal seem like an ‘Oh-by-the-way’ stat line across the NBA. He opened up the Blazers’ season by dropping 39 points on the Utah Jazz and he followed up that performance with 29 points and 37 points in the next two outings.

His last game on Saturday against the Denver Nuggets was likely his most impressive of the three games. He had 37 points, seven assists, five rebounds, three steals and a block in a 115-113 overtime win. It was Lillard that came up with two clutch shots in that game to help the Blazers pull out the win. He converted a catch and finish at the rim with 2.1 seconds remaining in regulation to send the game to overtime, and then hit the game-winning floater with less than a second left in overtime.

Lillard’s two buzzer-beating shots further solidified his place among the game’s best clutch players. Of course, we all remember his game-winner against the Houston Rockets in the 2014 playoffs, but he’s among the best in the league when it comes down to the final five minutes of close games. Last season, he scored 125 points in the final five minutes of games in which his team was either ahead or behind by five points, which ranked 15th. He also scored the third-most points in the league during the fourth quarter.

This year’s Most Valuable Player race seems to be wide open. After Kevin Durant opted to sign with the Golden State Warriors in free agency, pairing two former MVPs in Durant and Stephen Curry on the same team could prove to be tough for either player to take home the award. Each player isn’t afforded the same amount of scoring opportunities they might have seen in previous years and could hurt their chances of winning. Even Warriors head coach Steve Kerr predicted that Curry and Durant would hurt each other’s case, and Kerr predicted Lillard would win the MVP award.

With a player like Lillard, it’s clear that he’s the Blazers’ top scoring option night in and night out. They have other options as well in C.J. McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless and others, but Lillard is the team’s go-to player and their top option. That will ultimately help his chances all season long to continue to put up huge numbers. It’s fair to say that he likely won’t continue to score over 30 points per game, but it seems like a safe bet to assume he’ll put up big numbers each night.

Lillard entered the 2016-17 season with high expectations for himself. He said very directly to the Portland Tribune that he wants to be MVP. He believes that with his workload on the Blazers that an MVP campaign isn’t out of the question. Last year, Lillard finished sixth in the league in scoring at 25.1 points per game and helped the Trail Blazers surprise many around the league by advancing to the second-round of the playoffs.

“I want to be the MVP,” Lillard said. “If we come out and do the things we’re capable of doing as a team, if we win games, that means my performance will be at the level of an MVP.”

After finishing sixth in scoring last year, Lillard was named to the All-NBA Second Team but wasn’t a member of the All-Star team. Lillard often uses his snubs from the All-Star teams as motivation to continue to prove that he’s among the best in the league. The point guard position is the strongest it’s been in recent years and ranking the league’s top floor generals can often lead to some heated discussions among fans.

With so many talented players at the position in the league, it’s easy to see how overlooking Lillard can be a possibility. Players like Curry, Westbrook, Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving are often mentioned as some of the best in the league with no mention of Lillard. It seems as though he’s trying to change that notion and is off to a great start this season. He had an infamous quote after his All-Star snub in 2015 that is still floating around the internet.

“I just want to thank the coaches who feel I wasn’t good enough, the fans that didn’t think I was good enough and Adam Silver also for not thinking I was good enough,” Lillard said. “This isn’t unfamiliar territory for me, it’s actually what my life has been inspired by. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed or that I don’t feel disrespected, but it’s not too much to handle.”

Based on what we’ve seen from Lillard in three games, it seems reasonable to think that he can be a legitimate MVP candidate. The Trail Blazers finished 44-38 a season ago and advanced to the second-round of the playoffs. This came after many people didn’t believe they had the pieces to even make the postseason. Lillard finished eighth in MVP voting last season and it seems likely the Trail Blazers will need to be even better for Lillard to have a chance at the award.

Of course, he’s going to have a lot of competition all season long. Westbrook has already turned in two triple-doubles performances in just three games and was one assist away from making it three triple-doubles. If Westbrook keeps up that pace, it could be a one-man race this year. Other players like LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and James Harden among others figure to be in contention as well.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

#28 – Jacob Evans – Golden State Warriors

Jesse Blancarte

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With the 28th overall pick, the Golden State Warriors selected Cincinnati Junior Jacob Evans.

Evans represents a solid pick for nearly any NBA team. Evans fits in the mold of a potential 3-and-D role player. Evans improved in his time at Cincinnati, culminating in his junior year, where he scored 13 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. Evans spent three seasons at Cincinnati and rounded himself into a versatile two-way player who can bring a lot of value at the NBA level.

Evans is a very cognitive player, especially on the defensive end. He has a better grasp of his limitations than most players at this stage of their respective careers and is able to maximize his individual defensive ability within a team concept. Evans generally makes the right rotations, double-teams at the right times and funnels his opponents to where his teammates are when he cannot contain the ball-handler on his own. With the right coaching, he could become a valuable defensive wing in an NBA rotation sooner than some anticipate.

Additionally, Evans is more than just a shooter. He led his team in assists last season and has some skill as a playmaker. Evans will be more of a shooter and finisher in the NBA, but the ability to make the right pass, swing the ball when he isn’t open and take the ball off the dribble when necessary make him an intriguing prospect. This is especially true when you consider how valuable a player like Khris Middleton has become over the years, adding layers to his 3-and-D skill set each season.

The Warriors aren’t in need of an influx of talent but are happy to add Evans regardless.

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

#27 – Robert Williams III – Boston Celtics

With the 27th overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, the Boston Celtics have selected Robert Williams III.

Ben Nadeau

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With the 27th overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, the Boston Celtics have selected Robert Williams III.

Although there were early week rumors that the Celtics might try to trade up, they’ve ultimately elected to find a difference-maker at the end of the first round instead. For a team that nearly reached the NBA Finals despite debilitating injuries to Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, Boston’s roster didn’t need a wholesale change on draft night. But at No. 27, they’ll be more than happy to leave with the mysterious-but-talented Williams.

Last year, Williams was viewed as a potential first-rounder before he returned to Texas A&M for his sophomore year. In 2017-18, Williams averaged 10.4 points and 9.2 rebounds on 63.2 percent from the field, fueling the Aggies to a 22-13 record. During this current pre-draft process, Williams looked poised to become a mid-first-round selection once again — but his stock faded as the big night got closer. In fact, Williams even decided to watch the draft with his family, even though he was a green room invitee.

His stock has undoubtedly dropped as of late, but this may end up being the steal of the draft — naturally, he dropped right into general manager Danny Ainge’s lap. Williams, 6-foot-10, is a freak athlete that’ll bring a new look to an already fearsome defensive unit in Boston. At A&M, Williams won back-to-back SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors and averaged 2.5 blocks per game. Of course, he’ll get the opportunity to learn from the hard-nosed Al Horford, a five-time All-Star and the defensive linchpin for Boston — a win-win situation for all.

Williams, 20, joins an extremely young core in Boston that also includes Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and Jayson Tatum, among others.

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

#26 – Landry Shamet – Philadelphia 76ers

The Philadelphia 76ers select Landry Shamet with the 26th overall pick.

Dennis Chambers

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With the 26th overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, the Philadelphia 76ers select guard Landry Shamet of Wichita State.

Shamet, if he is able to fulfill his potential, should provide the Sixers with some much-needed shooting, as their rotation was noticeably starved for another deadeye sniper.

A career 43.7 percent three-point shooter, Shamet sank 44.2 percent of his shots from downtown last season, and he did so while firing nearly six attempts from deep a game. Sliding Shamet at the guard position alongside franchise point guard Ben Simmons allows for another weapon at Simmons’ disposal.

Standing at 6-foot-5 and 21 years old, Shamet has the size to play either guard spot in the NBA (especially given Philadelphia’s lengthy and versatile lineup). Along with his shooting ability, Shamet also led the American Athletic Conference with 166 assists last season. With Markelle Fultz still a question mark for Philadelphia, Shamet provides a secondary ball-handler and playmaker, whether in the starting lineup or in the reserve unit.

The first round of the 2018 NBA Draft was a whirlwind for the Sixers, and they ultimately land two guards of very separate varieties: an upside-laden athlete in Zhaire Smith, and a skillful “veteran” rookie whose skillset is established.

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