Damian Lillard burst onto the NBA scene in a big way. In his debut, Lillard scored 23 points, and dished out 11 assists against the Los Angeles Lakers. It was a good start for the young point guard from Weber State University who was selected by the Portland Trailblazers with the sixth pick in the 2012 draft. He hasn’t slowed down since. Lillard swept the Western Conference Rookie of the Month award last season, and was unanimously named Rookie of the Year, becoming only the fourth player to do so, along with Blake Griffin, David Robinson and Ralph Sampson.
Last season Lillard set a Portland franchise record by making 185 three pointers, surpassing former Trailblazer Damon Stoudamire, who made 181 three pointers in 2005-2006. Lillard has taken it even further this season. As of today, Lillard is tied for second with Klay Thompson for most three point field goals made this season with 213.
Looking into Lillard’s background, it becomes clear why Lillard has become an elite point guard, and why the Blazers took a chance on him with the sixth pick.
Lillard was born and raised in the Oakland area, which has produced some of the best point guards to have ever played, including Jason Kidd and Gary Payton. Payton, nicknamed “The Glove” for his gritty defense, told SI.com that “He (Lillard) plays like the rest of us did, with that little swagger and that complete calm. He doesn’t get rattled. That quality comes from Oakland, from the neighborhoods, from going into other gyms and getting challenged.” It also comes from Lillard’s strong work ethic. His high school coach, Orlando Watkins, told Maxpres.com that Lillard “has always been very focused and very driven. When other kids were out partying, Damian was working on his dribbling or jump shot.”
That work ethic and composure has served Lillard well in his first two seasons. But his success has not changed the way he approaches the game. Earl Watson, a teammate of Lillard’s, told SI.com that Lillard “doesn’t want to think of himself that way. He still wants to think of himself as a two-star from Weber State. I played with GP and against J-Kidd, and those guys all have that Oak edge. Dame is afraid to lose it.”
This approach has paid off for Lillard. Recent reports indicate that Lillard is close to signing a new, lucrative deal with Adidas. For the last few years Derrick Rose has been the face of Adidas’ basketball brand. The similarities between Rose and Lillard go beyond their shoe endorsements however.
In Rose’s rookie season he averaged 16.8 points per game on 47.5 percent shooting from the field. He also contributed 6.3 assists, and 3.9 rebounds. In his second season, Rose averaged 20.8 points on 48.8 percent shooting, along with 6 assists, and 3.8 rebounds per game. In comparison, Lillard, in his rookie season, averaged 19 points on 42.9 percent shooting, along with 6.5 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game. This season he is averaging 20.9 points on 42.5 percent shooting from the field. Lillard is also contributing 5.6 assists, 3.6 rebounds, and is hitting on 39.2 percent of his three point attempts. Note that it was Rose’s third season where he really made the leap into the upper stratosphere of the NBA, and won Most Valuable Player of the Year. With this in mind, it’s not a stretch to believe Lillard’s best days are ahead of him and could make a leap similar to the one Rose made.
However, Lillard still has room to improve, mostly on defense. Gary Payton said that “He’s not where he needs to be defensively. But he calls to ask what he’s doing wrong.” Lillard is in that class of elite players that are willing to admit their weaknesses and work hard to turn those weaknesses into strengths. This perspective will help Lillard continue his climb to truly elite status. Dorell Wright recently had dinner with the young star and told The Oregonian that “He was saying stuff to me that I don’t hear from young guys. He was talkin’ ‘I can’t wait until the summer, because I’m going to be working on this and that.’ And I was like, you already have your head there? Just hearing him saying that, and him looking forward to doing that work, that’s big. When I was that age, I was looking forward to getting back to L.A. to hang out with my friends. That was my main goal. So to hear him say that let’s me know how much passion he has for the game, how much passion he has for winning, and how much of a competitor he is.’’
While Lillard’s future is bright, it is important to not lose sight of what he and the Blazers have accomplished so far this season. Entering this season the Blazers were expected to be at best a fringe playoff team. Instead, they started the season on fire, going 31-9 in their first 40 games. They then hit a rough patch where they were winning and losing games in bunches, and slipping in the standings. Things got especially tough for the Blazers when star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge hurt his back on March 12 against the San Antonio Spurs. The Blazers lost that game, their fourth in a row.
After the game Lillard addressed his teammates in the locker room. It is unclear what he told the team, but veteran players like Wesley Matthews said it was good to hear from their point guard. Matthews said “It showed he’s grown. He’s one of those guys who has always led by example, and he put it on himself. He was tired of losing so he voiced his opinion.’’ The team still had some missteps until finally getting Aldridge back from injury, but it was Lillard who kept things from completely imploding. Most recently, Lillard went off for 14 fourth quarter points to help the Blazers get by the Utah Jazz after the Jazz managed to stick with the Blazers through three quarters.
The Blazers will have a tough route to the NBA Finals and it will be up to Lillard and Aldridge to step up and lead the team against the best teams in the West, most likely starting with the Houston Rockets. Listening to Payton, Lillard’s teammates, and his high school coach, it seems clear that Lillard has the confidence, leadership and skill to rise up to the moment.
– Jesse Blancarte