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.
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