The small school unknown is the NBA's hottest rookie.
The Portland Trailblazers really know how to flip the No. 6 pick in the NBA Draft. Six years ago, the Blazers roped in Brandon Roy with the sixth pick after nabbing LaMarcus Aldridge at No. 2. B. Roy lit up the league in ’06 for 16.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game to lead all rooks and took home Rookie of the Year honors after receiving 127 out of 128 first-place votes (Andrea Bargnani got the other first place vote, if you’re wondering). Now, six years later, Portland’s found another immediate impact player just outside of the Top 5. Their newest discovery is point guard Damian Lillard, who is leading all NBA neophytes with 18.8 points per contest. Prior to Lillard joining Oscar Robertson as the only player to have at least 20 points and at least 7 dimes in his first three games in the L, all roads to the ROY bling went through No. 1 pick Anthony Davis. But now that Lillard has been lacing ‘em up with the big boys, he’s made almost every analyst worth his salt put the Oakland native at the top of their current list. And rightfully so. Through six games, Damian has been cookin’ cats in the backcourt like Raekwon the Chef. Don’t sleep, it’s not often that a rookie PG can be seen slicing and fileting defenders in the pick and roll set like Emeril. Simply put, Lillard is givin’ opposing teams that work.
The chip on Damian Lillard’s shoulder grew to the size of the Rock of Gibraltar during his formative years. After he got copious amounts of buckets at Oakland HS, the fêted Oakland Soldiers AAU team snubbed him. So did the big D1 colleges. Lillard chose mid-major Weber State simply because they were the first to step up to the plate. Then, just as he was finding his way like ATCQ, he broke his foot, further knocking him out of contention as the country’s best PG in the collective minds of NBA scouts. He was doubted. He was forgotten. And that drove him. That made him put in work. Countless hours in the gym — the kind with dumbbells and the kind with Spauldings. Doubters made him tough. Nonbelievers made him believe. Skeptics drove him to study the nuances of the pick-and-roll — made it as essential as breathing. And quietly, outside of the television coverage dominated by schools like Kentucky and UNC, Lillard had made himself into the best PG in the 2012 draft class.
Neil Olshey had to see for himself . Before taking over the reins in Portland, Olshey made the trek to Ogden, Utah to see if Lillard had “made the jump to franchise-caliber point guard.”
After seeing firsthand how adept Lillard was at scoring the ball (he was second in the nation in scoring with a 24.5 ppg average) and getting his teammates involved, Olshey took a page from Daryl Morey’s geek book of analytics in pleading his case for moving up in the draft to select the Big Sky Conference’s 2012 MVP to Paul Allen. Olshey was like an Amway salesmen in his pitch, citing Lillard’s court vision and ability to run the middle and side pick-and-roll as the way to fully redeem the failed experiment that was Raymond “Doughboy” Felton. Portland needed a PG that could work the two-man game with Aldridge and Olshey was convinced that Lillard was the guy.
Turns out, the former Clippers GM was right. After simmering his point guard skills to a boil by running some 15 pick-and-roll plays per game, Lillard has spawned league-wide pithy descriptions like “fearless,” “confident” and “no conscience” to describe his game. Leading up to the draft, he was the kid no one had heard about. Now, he’s the kid people can’t stop talking about.
Sharks are born swimming. For his first game as an NBA floor general, Lillard torched the Lakers for 23 points and 11 assists on the way to a 116-106 win in Portland’s home opener. It wasn’t just what he did, but how he did it. Lillard played like he’d been here before. When his teammate’s defender was caught slipping off the pick-and-roll, he threaded the needle for the easy deuce. When the defense showed, he stepped back for the J. His jumper was so wet that night that fans sitting courtside in the Rose Garden should have worn ponchos. Sorry Mobb Deep, but Lillard was all up in the game and deserved to be a player. He made the Lake Show look like the Flake Show with the way he ran the O. After the game, even Black Mamba was jocking his style:
"I think the world of him. He has a great deal of talent and he's fearless. I think he has a bright future."
Shaq said that Lillard plays like a right-handed Damon Stoudamire, but Lillard is mightier than that Mighty Mouse. He’s bigger, faster, stronger. For his part, Lillard says he’s out to represent the great Oakland-bred PG’s that came before him like Jason Kidd and Gary Payton. The Blazers like to think of him as a new-fangled version of Chauncey or Deron, but this kid has his own steez, one that’s so non-rookie-like, it makes a top-flight PG like Chris Paul take notice:
“Aggressive. Not scared of anything. Portland better hold on to him, they definitely have a prized possession for the future.”
The praises are raining down on Lillard like singles at the King of Diamonds. Let’s just hope he doesn’t hit the rookie wall or bends under the pressure before he can bring back that old East Bay funk to the league.