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Damian Lillard’s Incredible Rise to Stardom

From Oakland to Ogden to Portland, a look back at Damian Lillard’s incredible journey from irrelevance to NBA stardom.

Alex Kennedy

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Damian Lillard is rarely rattled on the basketball court. That’s clear to anyone who has watched Lillard take over a game in clutch time and lead the Portland Trail Blazers to victory. The latest example of Lillard’s ice-water veins came on Sunday night, when the 23-year-old had 31 points, nine rebounds, five assists and several huge plays in the final minutes to lead the Blazers to an upset road victory over the Houston Rockets. It was Lillard’s first career playoff game, but you would never know it watching the confident point guard.

“It was a Damian Lillard performance,” Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said. “Damian rises to the occasion. For all those people who were wanting to know if he was ready for the playoffs, I think he answered that question, so we don’t have to answer that anymore. He made big plays. The three was big, getting to the rim was big, making free throws – it was a big time performance.”

However, there are still some situations in which Lillard isn’t nearly as calm and collected. On a number of occasions over the last two years, he has spotted a celebrity and wanted to introduce himself, only to realize that no introduction was necessary. Lil Wayne approached him and offered praise at an event in Florida last year. Allen Iverson walked across the room to congratulate Lillard on his success before a game in Atlanta. A starstruck Lillard tried his best to keep his cool in both situations, but it was tough considering he grew up idolizing Weezy and A.I.

Even though he’s the star point guard for the Trail Blazers, an NBA All-Star and the 2013 Rookie of the Year, Lillard still hasn’t gotten used to being famous. He doesn’t view himself as a celebrity and is still surprised every time he meets an adoring fan or autograph seeker. While many NBA stars are hyped up and thrust into the spotlight from a young age, Lillard wasn’t viewed as a basketball prodigy until very recently. The 23-year-old still thinks of himself as the kid from Oakland who was overlooked for much of his life, and his journey to the NBA explains why.

Before Lillard was one of the NBA’s best up-and-coming players, he was a two-star high school recruit who couldn’t get a scholarship from a high major college. Lillard wasn’t given any playing time at St. Joseph Notre Dame High School, so he transferred from the private school to Oakland High School, where he went on to become the team’s star and average 22.4 points and 5.2 assists in his senior season. However, college coaches weren’t expressing interest in the point guard. The only scholarship that Lillard received was from Weber State University, a mid-major school in Ogden, UT. The school’s head coach, Randy Rahe, saw Lillard play several times and couldn’t believe that other schools weren’t pursuing him. When he received the commitment from Lillard, he realized that he had found a diamond in the rough. Had another school approached Lillard, the point guard likely would’ve committed to them instead. After all, Weber State isn’t exactly a hotbed for NBA players while competing in the Big Sky Conference.

Once he started playing for Weber State, other programs realized that they had missed out. As a freshman, Lillard averaged 11.5 points in 29.4 minutes. After his breakout year, coaches around the country were now calling and asking Lillard to transfer. Suddenly, the schools that had doubted him just one year before were telling him that he could be great and that he was too good for Weber State. Lillard was amused by the sudden interest, but never seriously considered transferring. Loyalty is important to Lillard and he wasn’t going to turn his back on the school that was interested when nobody else cared about him. He wasn’t going to get national exposure at Weber State, but he was committed to putting the program on the map and making the best of his situation.

“I know that I’m going to have to prove myself more than someone who goes to school in one of the power conferences,” Lillard told me in October 2011, just before starting his final season at Weber State. “I know that I have more to prove because I don’t play against the competition they play against night in and night out. I think when the time comes for us to play against them, either in the NCAA Tournament or during the season, I think it’ll speak for itself. I played at adidas Nations the last two years and I did well [against the top competition there], so I think I’ve proven myself so far. I have a chip on my shoulder from knowing that people doubt me and whether or not I can make it to the next level. It’s everyone’s dream to play in the NBA. I’ve wanted that my whole life. That’s what I work for, to prove people wrong.”

During his final season, Lillard became one of the best players in college basketball and displayed his electrifying scoring ability and playmaking skills. His doubters were silenced, just as he’d predicted. He finished the season as the nation’s second-leading scorer with 24.5 points while also averaging five rebounds and four assists.

After flying under the NBA radar for years, Lillard was suddenly being talked about as a first-round pick. His meteoric rise continued during the pre-draft process, when he dominated individual workouts for teams and chose to participate in the draft combine, which isn’t something that most top prospects do. It soon became clear that Lillard was the top point guard in the 2012 draft class and one of the best players overall – it had just taken the NBA talent evaluators longer than usual to realize this. On draft night, the Blazers selected Lillard with the sixth overall pick. Despite being told he wasn’t good enough in high school and getting overlooked by top colleges, Lillard had finally made it.

“It’s been crazy,” Lillard told me just before being drafted. “In high school, I flew under the radar. In college, I flew under the radar. Then, this year, all of sudden there were a lot of people at my practices and a lot of people calling me. There were agents. I had never experienced all of that before, all of the attention. It was crazy and it got out of hand for a little while. It overwhelmed me a little bit, but once I realized that it was all good attention and that it came with the territory with how successful I was, I accepted it. It was crazy, but I was happy to know that I was going in the right direction.”

Lillard has continued to go in the right direction over the last two years, becoming just the fourth player in NBA history to win the Rookie of the Year award unanimously and making his first All-Star appearance this season. During All-Star Weekend, he became the first player to participate in every event, and he defended his NBA Skills Challenge title. As previously mentioned, he made his postseason debut on Sunday night, after leading Portland to a surprising 54-28 record and the fifth seed in the West, exceeding all preseason expectations for the team. Lillard is now viewed as one of the top up-and-coming point guards in the NBA. Looking back on his journey to relevance and success, Lillard shakes his head and smiles.

“Does it ever feel surreal?” I asked him last month.

“Always,” Lillard said with a laugh. “When I see my school playing on TV, I’ll think, ‘Wow, I was out there.’ That whole time, I hoped that I was going to the NBA, but I had no idea that all of this would happen. My coach that I worked out with there would tell me, ‘Don’t just go to the NBA, go be an All-Star.’ And in my head, I’d be like, ‘Well, I want to be an All-Star, but I don’t know how possible that really is.’ The fact that I’m here and I was able to become an All-Star so soon, it’s a blessing. It was a huge honor. A lot of people don’t get that opportunity at any point in their career and I was blessed enough to get it in my second season. All of the credit goes to the team though. I was able to do that because of how successful the team was. I understand that. It’s been a lot of fun. When you’re winning, these types of things happen because everyone loves winners. More individual things come when your team is successful; I’ve always understood that. It’s been a night and day from two years ago to now. Hopefully we can keep being successful as a team and there’s more to come.”

Lillard isn’t like most NBA superstars. He’s down to earth and often self deprecating. He puts his team before himself. He’s not entitled. Lillard believes he’s been able to remain humble and not let his success change him because he wasn’t anointed as a basketball prodigy at a young age. Some players are groomed to become star athletes as young as 13 years old, and they are soon surrounded by yes-men, handlers, agents and others who view the player as a lottery ticket. These players are rarely criticized or held accountable for their actions because nobody wants to jeopardize their relationship with the kid. Instead, these players are constantly praised from a young age, leading them to become cocky and entitled. Lillard obviously didn’t get that kind of attention. He wasn’t a “phenom,” he just wanted to get a single college basketball coach to notice him and offer a scholarship. It wasn’t until Lillard was mature and much older that he was thrust into the limelight.

“I have a degree, I was in school for four years, I lived away from home for a long time and I had the opportunity to grow as a man,” Lillard said. “Not to talk down about anyone else, but I’ve got experience over [most young players]. Some of them are 18 years old. I think my maturity has definitely helped me.

“I just take everything for what it is. I understand where I started and what had to be done for me to get here – working hard and having high character. I still appreciate those things. I appreciate just being here too. I don’t think, ‘Alright, I’m here so now I’m a big shot and nobody can tell me nothing.’ That’s not what made me who I am. I appreciate the things that made me who I am and I’ll never get away from those things. … I still have the same company, the same people around me. I’m sticking to what I’ve always done. I haven’t changed.”

While Lillard was more prepared for the NBA than most players when he entered the league, there’s no question that he has made huge strides over the last two years. He has continued to improve each season, working hard to maximize his potential.

“I’ve grown a lot since I entered the league, especially with the opportunity that I was given here,” Lillard said. “They put me out there right away and I was running an NBA team as a rookie, so that forced me to grow up. Then, coming into this season, we had a better team so expectations were high. I also had a lot of veterans around me and I had an increased role on the team, so that helped me grow up.”

Lillard’s All-Star teammate, LaMarcus Aldridge, has been impressed with the point guard’s development. Before the Blazers drafted Lillard, Aldridge was seriously considering leaving Portland. The team was rebuilding and struggling to win games, so Aldridge thought about demanding a trade or leaving as a free agent when his contract ended. However, Lillard’s emergence as a second star has allowed the Blazers to speed up their rebuilding process and return to the playoffs quicker than expected. Aldridge is thrilled to have Lillard in Portland and has been impressed with the development of his sidekick.

“He’s become a better point guard, knowing when to move the ball, knowing when to get guys involved, knowing when to be aggressive going to the basket or looking for his shot,” Aldridge said. “I think he’s grown a whole lot this year. We help each other. I help take pressure off him because guys can’t leave me and vice versa. When people leave me, I hit him, so people try to stay home on him too.”

Lillard has also grown off the court, where he has adjusted to the NBA lifestyle and everything that comes with being an All-Star. Last year, while visiting Times Square with his mother, he was swarmed by autograph seekers. That’s the moment he realized just how much his life had changed, and that he could no longer just blend in. He’s a household name now, with 1.1 million Facebook likes and 350,000 Twitter followers.

“That’s a part of it,” Lillard said of fame. “That’s something that you have to accept when you take on this profession, it’s something that you understand when you’re pursuing this career. People are going to be fans of you. You’re a public figure. With that, you need to make sure that you’re always doing the right things. You need to take on that challenge and do the right things because you’re influencing kids.”

It wasn’t long ago that Lillard was one of those kids, looking up to Oakland legends like Gary Payton and Jason Kidd and hoping to someday play in the NBA. Now, he has achieved his goal and is living his dream. After years of being overlooked, all eyes are finally on Lillard and he’s ready for the limelight.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Tobias Harris Thrives at Every Stop

Tobias Harris was traded yet again, but thankfully for the Clippers, he’s gotten better every stop he’s made.

Joel Brigham

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When Tobias Harris was a 19-year-old rookie for the Milwaukee Bucks, he faced a lot of the same issues that other 19-year-old rookies before him had faced, most notably the ones dealing with a lack of playing time.

He only saw the floor in 42 games, playing on 11 minutes per contest when he did get out there.

Despite that, it was somewhat of a surprise that the Bucks gave up on his talent so early in his career, trading him to the Orlando Magic just 28 games into his sophomore season as part of a trade for J.J. Redick.

The Magic immediately tripled his minutes, and he’s never been a 30 minutes-per-game guy ever since. He also has never said a negative thing about any team he’s ever played for. As far as he’s concerned, every opportunity is a blessing and a learning experience.

“I didn’t look at Milwaukee as a team giving up on me. I looked at it as Orlando valuing me and seeing me as a piece of the puzzle,” Harris told Basketball Insiders during All-Star Weekend, where he participated in the three-point contest.

“The NBA is about opportunity, so when you get the opportunity you have to make the most of it. Going from a rookie not playing to where I’m at now, it takes a lot of hard work, focus and determination,” he said. “You have to have the confidence in your own self, to understand you can break through in this league.”

And break through he did, in large part because those first 18 months as a professional were so challenging.

“Adversity helped me to work hard,” he said. “I always envisioned myself as a primetime player in this league. I have a ways to go to get there, but that’s the best part about me. My best basketball is ahead of me, and adversity has helped me get there. It’s motivated me, and I want to be the best player I can be. I’m trying every single day to fight for that.”

This season, most of which came as a member of the Detroit Pistons, was a career-best for Harris.

Between the Pistons and L.A. Clippers, Harris has averaged a career-high 18 points per game, and while he wasn’t voted to the All-Star Team this year, his name popped up in the conversation. He’s never been closer.

It was bittersweet for him, though, leaving a Detroit team he liked so much.

“My favorite part was being around those guys [in Detroit],” he said. “It was a great group of guys and a great coaching staff. Coach Van Gundy is a great coach. At the same time, when I first got there, we had a chance to make the playoffs and we got in the playoffs. That was nice for me, to put that pressure on myself and get it done.”

Now, he’s ready to accept his next challenge in Los Angeles with the Clippers.

“I look at every new opportunity as a new chance,” he said. “My first trade from Milwaukee to Orlando was a situation where I just wanted to prove myself to the league. When I was traded from Orlando to Detroit, it was a situation where I wanted to help the team get to the playoffs, and that’s similar to this one here, too… I really like the group of guys that are on this team. I like our demeanor and our approach, so after the break I look forward to building that chemistry and moving forward.”

Of course, moving forward is all he’s ever done.

After everything he’s proven to date, it seems like a given that he’ll continue to make strides with his new team.

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All Star

2018 NBA All-Star Sunday Recap

Michael Petrower recaps the All-Star Game from Sunday in Los Angeles.

Basketball Insiders

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The 2018 NBA All Star Game had some added appeal this year, with Captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry selecting playground style from the pool of All-Stars. Although it was not televised, it drew a lot of interest to say the least.

Team Lebron was headlined by Kevin Durant (the alleged first pick), Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, and Kyrie Irving. Sadly, Team Lebron suffered big losses with John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Kevin Love and Kristaps Porzingis going down with injuries. Team Stephen was led by Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Joel Embiid and Demar DeRozan.

NBA fans were ready to indulge on the highlight real of plays to commence…That was, until the NBA inflicted a marathon-like performance that seemed a bit unnecessary, to say the least. Kevin Hart was at the center of theatrics that had NBA fans scratching their heads questioning what was on their television screen. Fergie topped off the saga with what was one of the more questionable national anthems we’ve seen in recent years. However, if you stuck around long enough, the game started at 8:40 PM EST and the flashy plays that we hoped for, began.

Joel Embiid made his first A;l-Star game appearance and kicked off the scoring festivities for Team Stephen with a ferocious and-one dunk. Team Stephen led all of the first quarter and won the quarter 42-31. Karl Anthony Towns led the first quarter scoring with 11 points. Team LeBron, however would storm back and cut the lead to two, 78-76 at half. LeBron came into his 14th straight All-Star game and lead his team at the half with 15 points. Klay Thompson also lead Team Stephen with 15 points at half.

The second half ensued and after some back and forth between the two teams, Team Stephen was leading by three going into the fourth quarter, 112-109. Team Stephen grew their lead to 11 while LeBron and KD got some rest. But after the two came back in, the 11-point deficit was erased after a LeBron three and the teams were now tied at 144 with 1:16 left in the fourth quarter.

DeRozan would make a free throw to put Team Stephen up one point, but Lebron followed with a strong two-pointer to put his team up one. DeRozan tried to answer, but threw away a pass which resulted in an easy two points for Russell Westbrook to ice the game. Team LeBron was the 2018 All Star Game winner with a score of 148-145.

LeBron James went on to win his third All Star MVP after finishing with 29 points to go along with 10 rebounds, eigh assists and a steal on 12-17 shooting. DeRozan and Damian Lillard lead Team Stephen with 21 points each.

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NBA

Rest Assured, the 1-16 NBA Playoff Format Is Coming… Kinda

Based on Adam Silver’s comments, it’s safe to assume that the NBA will soon reformat the playoffs.

Moke Hamilton

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If there’s one thing Adam Silver has proven in his four years as the NBA’s Commissioner, it’s that he isn’t afraid to do things his way.

And if Silver has his way, the league will eventually figure out how it can implement a system that results in a more balanced playoff system. On Saturday, though, he revealed that it’s probably closer to a reality than many of us realize.

During his annual All-Star media address, Silver admitted that the league will “continue to look at” how they can reformat the playoffs to both ensure a better competitive balance throughout and pave the way for the league’s two best teams to meet up in the NBA Finals, even if both of those two teams happen to be in the same conference.

“You also would like to have a format where your two best teams are ultimately going to meet in the Finals,” the commissioner said on Saturday night.

“You could have a situation where the top two teams in the league are meeting in the conference finals or somewhere else. So we’re going to continue to look at that. It’s still my hope that we’re going to figure out ways.”

Since Silver took over the league, he’s been consistent in implementing dramatic changes to improve the overall quality of the game. Although Silver didn’t take over as the league’s commissioner until 2014, he was instrumental in getting the interested parties to buy into the notion that the “center” designation on the All-Star ballot was obsolete.

As a result, beginning with the 2013 All-Star Game, the Eastern and Western Conference teams have featured three “frontcourt” players, which essentially lumps centers in with forwards and eliminates the requirement that a center appear in the All-Star game. That wasn’t always the case.

From overhauling the league’s scheduling to reducing back-to-back games to implementing draft lottery reform to, this year, eliminating the traditional All-Star format which featured the Eastern Conference versus the Western Conference, it’s become clear that Silver simply “gets it” and isn’t afraid to make revolutionary changes if he deems them to be in the overall best interest of the league.

At this point, everyone realizes that something needs to be done about the league’s current playoff system.

Last season, for example, the Western Conference first round playoff series featured the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder squaring off against one another. Only one series—the Los Angeles Clippers versus Utah Jazz—went seven games.

Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, the first round series that were contested weren’t exactly compelling.

The Cleveland Cavaliers steamrolled the conference to the tune of a 12-1 run to their third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. It wasn’t the first time that the public questioned the wisdom behind separating the playoff brackets by conference, but the dominance of the Cavs and LeBron James specifically (who is expected to win the Eastern Conference for the eighth consecutive time this season) has caused renewed scrutiny.

The most common solution offered to this point has been to simply take the 16 best teams across the league, irrespective of conference, and conduct the playoffs as normal.

From afar, this solution seems simple enough, but the obvious concerns are twofold.

First, if the Celtics and Clippers, for example, were pitted against one another in a first round series, the travel would be considerable. Private charter flight or not, traveling is taxing, and the prospect of having to make five cross-country trips over the course of a two-week span would certainly leave the winner of such a series at a competitive disadvantage against the opponents they would face in subsequent rounds, especially if the future opponent enjoyed a playoff series that was contested within close proximity.

Atlanta to New Orleans, for example, is less than a one-hour flight.

Aside from the concerns about geographic proximity, the other obvious issue is competitive balancing of the schedule, which seems to be an easier issue to fix.

Using the Pelicans as an example, of the 82 games they play, 30 are played against the other conference—in this case, the Eastern Conference. The other 52 games would all be played within the conference. If playoff seedings were going to be done on a simple 1-16 basis, the scheduling would have to be realigned in a way to essentially pit all teams against one another evenly. It wouldn’t be fair for a team like the Celtics to be judged on the same standard as the Pelicans if the Celtics faced inferior teams more often.

On Saturday night, Silver revealed that the league’s brass has been thinking about this and is trying to find a solution, and in doing so, he may have tipped his hand.

* * * * * *

As a multinational conglomerate, the NBA values the inclusion of as many markets as possible. Wanting to improve the overall quality of the product, though, there are interests that may not align fully.

What’s obvious with this year’s All-Star game is that the NBA has found a way to balance the two.

Rather than eliminating the conference designations altogether and simply choosing the “best” 24 players to be in the All-Star game, the league still chose All-Stars based on their conference, but then distributed them within the pool to allow for better competition.

That’s exactly what Silver revealed the NBA is considering doing with the playoffs. It makes perfect sense, and it’s probably just a matter of time before it’s implemented.

A report from ESPN notes that the idea that the league is kicking around would essentially do exactly what the league did with the All-Star selections with the playoff teams: choose the best from each conference, then disburse them in a way that allows for competitive balance. 

The proposal would have the league’s teams compete as they normally do and would still feature the top eight teams from each conference getting into the playoffs.

Once the teams are qualified, however, they would be re-seeded on a 1-16 basis and crossmatched, on that basis.

It’s not perfect, but compromises never are. The travel issues would still persist, but the league would accomplish two goals: the less dominant conference wouldn’t be underrepresented and discouraged from competing, but the two best teams would still be on opposite ends of the bracket.

An NBA playoffs that featured 11 or 12 teams from the Western Conference would be a ratings nightmare for the league. Eastern Conference cities are less likely to stay up past midnight during the week to watch playoff games, and less competitive markets would frown at the prospect of having to compete against the other conference for a playoff spot. For many small market teams, the millions of dollars generated from a single playoff game often has a significant impact on the team’s operations, so there would naturally be discord.

This system would at least eliminate that contention.

On the positive side, it would allow for the Rockets and Warriors, for example, to meet in the NBA Finals. In both the NFL and MLB, geography hasn’t been a determining factor on which teams battle for the league’s championship.

Why does it have to be in the NBA?

* * * * * *

With the league having begun regular season play earlier this season, at the All-Star break, most teams have played about 57 games. A lot can change over the final 25 games of the season, but if the seeds were frozen today and the league took the top eight teams from each conference and then crossmatched them, the Los Angeles Clippers would be the team that got the short end o the stick.

Although the Clippers have the 16th best record in the league, they would be the ninth-seeded Western Conference team and would thus be eliminated from postseason contention by the Miami HEAT. The HEAT have the 17th best record in the league but are the eighth-best team in the Eastern Conference, so to preserve the conference weight, the HEAT would win out.

This is what the seedings and matchups would look like…

(1) Houston Rockets versus (16) Miami HEAT

(2) Golden State Warriors versus (15) New Orleans Pelicans

(3) Toronto Raptors versus (14) Philadelphia 76ers

(4) Boston Celtics versus (13) Portland Trail Blazers

(5) Cleveland Cavaliers versus (12) Denver Nuggets

(6) San Antonio Spurs versus (11) Oklahoma City Thunder

(7) Minnesota Timberwolves versus (10) Milwaukee Bucks

(8) Washington Wizards versus (9) Indiana Pacers

Here, the Celtics would face the nightmarish scenario of having to travel to and from Portland for their playoff series, while virtually every other series would feature much more friendly travel (especially the Spurs-Thunder and Raptors-Sixers).

The Cavs would have a very tough road to the Finals, having to beat the Nuggets, Celtics and Rockets if the seeds held. The Celtics would have a similarly tough road, as they’d have to get past the Blazers, Cavs and Rockets.

At the end of the day, the Rockets and Warriors would be aligned in such a way as to avoid one another until the championship, but each of the two would face daunting competition. The Rockets would have to go through the HEAT, Wizards and Celtics, while the Warriors would have to face the Pelicans, Timberwolves and Raptors—again, assuming the seeds held.

It would be a benefit to all observers.

One of the unintended consequences of implementing this system would be to make every single game count. If the Celtics were able to move up to the second seed, for example, their road to the Finals, in theory, could become much much easier, comparatively speaking.

The end result would be less resting of players during the course of the season and certainly less instances in which star players take the final week of the regular season off in other to be fresh for the postseason.

Everyone wins.

No, there’s no perfect solution, but just as the league has found a clever way to serve multiple interests as it relates to the All-Star game’s competitiveness, Silver has revealed that the league is at least considering following suit with the playoffs.

Best bet?

It’s only a matter of time before we see it actually see it happen.

It simply makes too much sense, and if there’s one thing the commissioner has already proven, it’s that he isn’t afraid of changing tradition.

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