There’s nothing flashy about Portland Trailblazer point guard Damian Lillard‘s game, which is exactly what stands out after watching him play for just a few minutes. “Poise” is one of the first words opposing NBA coaches use to describe him. While most point guards come into the league showing glimpses of greatness, they are often offset by expected struggles that come with the territory – turnovers, poor clock management, questionable shot selection, etc. For the most part, Lillard, has avoided all of those and put on a show all season long with no slump or let up in sight.
“I think that [poise] is just from having confidence in myself,” he said. “I grew up in Oakland, so I’ve been in a neighborhood where people might want to pick on you and I might have to stick up for myself. My cousins and my brother, I might have to stick up for them, whatever was going on. On the court, it’s just a basketball game; the worst thing that could happen is we lose a game. So I’m not really rattled by the ups and downs of the game.”
There’s a chip on his shoulder. He went from an unheralded Weber St. University recruit, to honorable mention All-American, to the sixth overall pick in the NBA draft; now he’s moved from dark horse Rookie of the Year to a near shoo-in for the award.
“Is it close or is it guaranteed?” Blazers All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge asked regarding Lillard and the award. “I don’t really think it’s close. I think he’s definitely Rookie of the Year. I don’t know any other rookie that’s put up the numbers that he’s put up this year and been as consistent as he’s been this year.”
The numbers he’s referring to are these: 19.1 points per game, plus 6.5 assists and three rebounds, shooting 43 percent from the field and 37 percent from three. By comparison, last season’s ROY Kyrie Irving was good for 18.5, 5.4 and 3.7 in his rookie campaign on 47 percent shooting and 40 percent from three. To be sure, Lillard has a much stronger supporting cast and plays more minutes. Still, that’s pretty damn good.
“I wouldn’t say [I've been] surprised, but the remarkable thing is how consistent he’s been,” said Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “He came in at the beginning of the season and scored well just with his natural talent. I think he’s learned the nuances of the NBA game, he’s taken what teams have thrown at him – traps, getting the ball out of his hands – and he’s managed to be an extremely consistent player. You look at March, he’s having his best month of the season, and that’s after four Rookie of the Month [awards].”
Through it all, Lillard always stays on an even keel. He’s never too high, never too low, never out of control. He plays at his own pace. Even as the spotlight on him has magnified, he maintains the tunnel vision that’s gotten him to this point so far.
“That’s when you start to do uncharacteristic things, playing for the wrong reasons,” he said. “We play to win games and I’m here to help the team, I’m not here to help myself win individual awards. I feel like the more I help my team, the more we can achieve as a team, that will help me with what I want to do individually.”
In addition to playing with a composure that most players don’t develop until they’ve had a couple years of experience, Lillard has a jumper that many point guards come into the league lacking. They can handle and get to the rack, but the knock is their shooting, a la John Wall, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, etc. Not the case with the quick release, smooth-shooting Lillard, who’s hitting 46 percent from 15-19 feet out, and knocking down threes at a consistent rate too.
“When I’m playing in the pick-and-roll, if I’m knocking down that mid-range shot, it will pull the big man closer to me. When that happens, it’s basically one-on-one with me and him to the basket. When they back off – sometimes they’ll send the guard under – then I’ll have a three. Being able to make shots is really helpful in the pick-and-roll.”
Most rookies come in the league and have to learn from the bench, Lillard has stepped into a perfect situation – the Blazers have a shallow, but solid roster, and a limited bench. Thus, Lillard averages more 38 minutes per night – top-five in the league – and he’s started every single game for a decent team.
“[Playing right away] has been really helpful for me,” said Lillard. “A lot of guys don’t get the opportunity to play through mistakes, play a lot of minutes and they don’t have that amount of trust. Coming in, I think [Portland] showed a lot of trust in me and that helped my confidence. I make mistakes – turnovers, fouls, not playing pick-and-roll defense good enough – but them leaving me out there showed me that I was their guy. They showed faith in me and put me in the fire. They let me play through mistakes and I’ve been able to grow because of the opportunity.”