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Damian Lillard No Longer Overlooked
Posted By Alex Kennedy On February 15, 2013 @ 5:00 am In NBA | No Comments
“I have a chip on my shoulder, knowing that people doubt me and whether 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.” – Damian Lillard, 2011
Damian Lillard doesn’t seem to fit the underdog mold. After all, he was the sixth overall pick in this year’s NBA Draft and seems like a lock to win the Rookie of the Year award. Lillard has taken the league by storm and is having one of the most remarkable rookie seasons in recent memory. The 22-year-old point guard has become a household name and looks poised for an outstanding career.
However, before Lillard was donning a Portland Trail Blazers jersey and dominating NBA competition, he was overlooked and underappreciated at every level.
Lillard’s basketball career nearly ended in high school, when he was buried on the depth chart at St. Joseph of Notre Dame in California. He rarely played at the private school and when he would see the court, it would only be for a handful of minutes. After his sophomore season, the team’s head coach told Lillard that he was unsure if there was a role for him. Rather than continuing to pay for their son to attend the school, Houston and Gina Lillard decided to pull him out of St. Joseph.
Lillard transferred to Oakland High, where he found a role and experienced success. However, he continued to fly under the radar. Lillard was considered a two-star prospect by Rivals.com and didn’t receive any scholarship offers from big-time programs. He did receive an offer from Weber State, whose head coach Randy Rahe watched Lillard shine with a relatively unknown AAU team called the Oakland Rebels. Lillard joined the Wildcats and moved to Ogden, Utah. He was determined to put Weber State on the map and outperform the players who had been heavily recruited and highly touted out of high school.
At Weber State, Lillard put up excellent numbers during his freshman and sophomore seasons. However, he suffered a fractured right foot during his junior season, which sidelined him for all but nine games and put his NBA dream in jeopardy. When he returned the following season a redshirt junior, scouts and executives who had been keeping an eye on Lillard weren’t sure what to expect. They viewed him as a potential second-round pick, but that was assuming he could bounce back from his injury. Lillard did just that, finishing as the nation’s second-leading scorer with 24.5 points while also averaging five rebounds and four assists. It soon became clear that not only was he going to be a first-round pick, he was likely going to be the top point guard in the 2012 draft class. Individual workouts and a strong combine performance confirmed this, and the Blazers were thrilled to pick him sixth overall.
Now, Lillard will never have to worry about going unnoticed again. All eyes are on the rookie, especially in Portland where he has unexpectedly turned the Blazers into a competitive team that sits just three games outside of the Western Conference’s playoff picture. Looking back on his unconventional journey to the NBA, Lillard admits that his world has changed dramatically in the last year.
“It’s a lot different, but I still have the same company, the same people around me,” Lillard told HOOPSWORLD. “I basically have to live up to it now. I’m sticking to what I’ve always done. I haven’t changed. I haven’t changed anything that I’m doing. Hopefully I can finish the year strong. I think I will.”
Lillard has never lacked confidence. He said that he was going to make it to the NBA when nobody said it was possible and he predicted that his transition from college to the NBA would be easier than people thought. However, Lillard is a mix of confident and self-aware. While some players want to terrorize the teams that passed on drafting them, Lillard completely understands why the New Orleans Hornets, Charlotte Bobcats, Washington Wizards, Cleveland Cavaliers and Sacramento Kings didn’t select him.
“I wasn’t the sexiest pick,” Lillard said with a laugh. “A 22-year-old, four years in school, from a small school – I’m not mad at anybody for passing up on me.”
With that said, Lillard hopes his success makes life easier for other mid-major stars.
“I feel like I need to represent for mid-majors,” Lillard said. “I need to prove that what I’m doing isn’t a fluke. I still need to prove that I’m going to keep getting better, that I can be a top level point guard in this league.”
So why has Lillard been able to have so much success during his rookie season? He has been able to score at will and make his teammates better, just as he did in college. Usually, it takes time for young point guards to adjust to the NBA, particularly the speed of the game and the elite defenders. However, Lillard has made an immediate impact, averaging 18.3 points and 6.5 assists.
“I think being a rookie point guard is hard sometimes – it’s hard to be accepted and for people to be comfortable with you having so much responsibility,” Lillard said. “But my teammates have accepted me and made me comfortable being a leader on the team, being responsible for the ball and making sure that guys are involved. I think being comfortable off the court with them helped. Also, how willing they were to let me come in and be the point guard and have control; that made everything a lot easier for me.”
LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum have been crucial to Lillard’s success. At Weber State, Lillard was used to facing double and triple teams. Now, in Portland, he has Aldridge and Batum to take some of the pressure off of him as a scorer and allow him to flourish as a distributor.
“With Nic, he’s another playmaker and he can score,” Lillard said. “On defense, he’s constantly getting his hands on the ball, which allows me to get out in transition so I can make plays for myself and other guys.
“With [LaMarcus], I don’t think I could’ve been paired with anybody better. His game complements mine with pick-and-rolls and his ability to score on the block and my ability to shoot. Teams want to double down on him [but can’t]. Also, his ability to pick-and-pop, roll to the rim and go over his left shoulder, I think we really complement each other. Being on the floor with guys that complement my game so early [in my career] really makes things easier.”
Lillard’s biggest adjustment from college to the NBA has been the quality of opposing players. In the Big Sky Conference, Lillard was the best player on most nights, as evidenced by his two Big Sky Conference Player of the Year trophies. However, in the NBA, that’s not always the case.
“Some guys are really good,” Lillard said. “I mean, really good. Kyrie Irving is really tough. Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday are all really tough. There are other guys too. You see them on T.V. and you’re like, ‘He’s nice, one of the best players in the league.’ But being on the court and seeing Carmelo [Anthony] get 45, Kevin Durant get 38, LeBron [James] just making plays and doing everything, you don’t realize how good guys are. That’s the biggest surprise for me. LeBron, at 6’9, being probably the strongest and fastest guy in the league? That’s my biggest surprise.”
In a few years, Lillard hopes to be one of those “tough” players that give opposing players fits. You can make the argument that he’s almost at that point, considering he has scored double digits in all but four games this season and has scored 20 or more points in 25 of 53 games. Lillard has lofty goals that he hopes to accomplish before his career comes to an end.
“I want to win a championship. I want to play in All-Star games. Of course I [want to be MVP],” Lillard said. “Why wouldn’t I want to be MVP of the league? All of those things are long-term goals. But I think the success of our team will lead to that type of stuff. Right now, I’m just in the moment.”
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