Damian Lillard accomplished almost everything as a rookie. Outside of nearly leading Portland to the playoffs — just having the Blazers in the conversation was impressive enough — Lillard led the NBA in total minutes, averaged 19 points a game, unanimously won Rookie of the Year AND made the cover of Dime Magazine. He also never hit the rookie wall, miraculously improving as the season dragged into the spring, and repeatedly held his own against some of the league’s best point guards. Lillard exceeded expectations. But he still wasn’t perfect.
He struggled defensively, and while the numbers aren’t obvious (Portland only gave up 2.4 more points per 100 possessions with Lillard on the floor), there were instances where Lillard looked completely lost. Yes that was partly because he was the team’s only point guard (before Eric Maynor arrived). He had to stay on the floor, couldn’t get into foul trouble, and needed to save himself for the other end.
But the rook does recognize the criticism. The Oregonian writes:
“When people say stuff about my defense, it bothers me,” Lillard said. “And I’m aware of it. It drives me. It lights a fire under me.”
If that attitude and drive doesn’t convince Trail Blazers fans that the franchise is in good hands, maybe this will: The wheels are already in motion for Lillard to workout and study defense this summer under the tutelage of the greatest defensive point guard ever, Hall of Famer Gary Payton.
“He said ‘I want to help you,'” Lillard said of Payton. “He said it would take time for me to become a defender, but he said I have everything to become one. So this will be the summer where I get in the gym with him and try to learn from him.”
Payton and Lillard are both from East Oakland, and the Glove has been following the 6-3 Weber State product since college. He again reached out to Lillard after watching the rook light up the Warriors for 37 points in January. Payton reportedly said he believes Lillard can be better than he was, and also better than Jason Kidd, another Oakland point guard.
The Blazers rookie expects to get better, just as Portland’s front office expects to find help to limit his on-court responsibilities. If he takes advantage of his time with Payton this summer, Lillard could come back in the fall looking like an All-Star.
Is Payton the best defensive point guard ever?
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