Blazers’ Damian Lillard Dominating Summer League
As the sixth overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, Damian Lillard was bound to feel the pressure to perform for a Portland Trail Blazers team that is expecting a lot from their potential starting point guard next season.
In four games of NBA Summer League play this past week in Las Vegas, the only thing Lillard has failed to do is disappoint. The 22-year-old out of Weber State has averaged a rookie-best (second overall) 26.5 points per game to go along with 5.3 assists (second-best among rookies) and four rebounds per contest.
“It’s fun,” Lillard told HOOPSWORLD. “I wouldn’t say I’m tearing it up… but it’s good to be out here in a game environment. I get to play against NBA-level talent and get up and down [the court] and develop that chemistry with my teammates.”
Listening to Lillard speak, there’s no doubt that the rookie isn’t lacking for confidence, but also has a good head on his shoulders and isn’t letting his recent successes inflate his ego. The driving force in Lillard is evident and he says that’s something he developed at a young age. Instead of letting that consume him, Lillard says he was able to hone that into something constructive due to positive influences around him that helped keep him grounded.
“I’ve always had the confidence, but between ninth and tenth grade is when I hit that point when I started learning how to work hard,” Lillard said. “That’s when I figured out what it would take to give me a chance. In my head I thought I was going to make it all along, but once I figured out what I had to do to give myself a better chance – working hard, taking care of my body and just being a high-character person – I think that’s what got me to this point.”
While his shooting percentage (43.8) could use some work, and turnovers have been a bit of an issue (3.8), overall Lillard has displayed both the scoring and playmaking ability that netted him a top-10 selection.
“I think my ability to make plays is underrated,” Lillard said. “I think with [NBA-level] talent around me, I’ll be able to show it… I really just want to show that my game transfers and win games.
“I want people to see that I can score the ball the same that I did in college in the NBA and I want to show them that I make plays better than I’m given credit for.”
Playing the most difficult position on the floor as a rookie isn’t going to be easy for Lillard, so the point guard says he’s using the summer league to gain that much-needed rapport with his teammates.
“It’s just about getting comfortable with my teammates,” Lillard said. “Developing chemistry so when we come into camp, it’ll be just those few veterans that I haven’t played with and it’ll be easier to get in the flow and the mix with them.
Lillard says playing with more of that NBA-level talent is one thing that’s really helping him to showcase his skills this summer.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Lillard said. “Coming from a mid-major school (Weber State University), you don’t play with the extremely high, major athletes so you don’t play with guys that can do everything that you can do.”
One of his teammates in particular, fellow lottery pick Meyers Leonard, has been a favorite of Lillard’s when the two are on the floor together. The young point guard says the athletic, 7-1 Leonard makes life a whole lot easier with his presence around the basket.
“With Meyers he’s just a high-level rebounder, a great athlete and I can just put the ball at the rim for him out of the pick and roll and he’ll go dunk it,” Lillard said. “If I happen to make a mistake on defense, he’s cleaning up the paint, blocking shots.”
Two promising rookies in Lillard and Leonard combined with two young and talented incumbent starters in LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicholas Batum potentially gives Portland a capable core of players for years to come. Going into next season, Lillard has little doubt that with the amount of talent currently in place, Portland is on the right track to being a playoff-contending team.
“It gives you a lot to look forward to just because Portland is a playoff team,” Lillard said. “The year before this past year, they were in the playoffs and had a good chance against Dallas. Had a down year due to injuries [in 2012] and was fortunate enough to get two lottery picks and I believe this is a playoff team. Me and Meyers is coming in to pick it back up.”
This is obviously a time of optimism in the NBA. With the draft in the dust, free agency nearly in the rear-view mirror and Summer League coming to a close, teams and players are glass-half-full with a little over a month before training camp.
In the case of Lillard and the Trail Blazers, that optimism might not be all that misplaced. Featuring an All-Star caliber power forward in Aldridge to go along with a talented, yet still developing supporting cast – the Blazers have the potential to find their way back to the postseason in 2013.