Damian Lillard is not letting the current love affair NBA teams have with his game get to his head. He recognizes the work still to be done, more people to prove wrong and an Oakland hoops tradition to carry on. The 6-3 point guard’s everlasting chip on the shoulder is birthed out of past underrating and overlooking.
Despite putting up 28 points per game his senior year at Oakland (CA) High, Lillard was written off as a mid-major recruit, thus landing at Weber State of the Big Sky conference. He was the first freshman to land a spot on the All-Conference first team since Detroit Pistons guard Rodney Stuckey (Eastern Washington) back in 2006. After Lillard was named conference MVP as a sophomore, his season was derailed as a junior due to a broken foot.
Months of character and skill building gave way to one of the best seasons in Weber State basketball history in 2011. Lillard was among the most feared scorers in the college game, finishing second in the nation with 24.5 points per game. He was also named an All-American by the Associated Press and National Association of Basketball Coaches.
Come Thursday night, Lillard is widely expected to be the first point guard called. In our latest mock draft, we have the junior going No. 10 to New Orleans, teaming him up with top pick Anthony Davis. The major consensus is he won’t slip out of the top ten.
Dime caught up with Damian to discuss his underdog background, coming from Oakland and his take on being a point guard with an affinity for putting ball in the hoop.
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Dime: You were considered a two-star prospect coming out of Oakland High, now you are considered a sure-fire lottery pick and the top point guard in the draft. How are you dealing with this newfound attention?
Damian Lillard: I’m dealing with it well. When people doubted me and didn’t give me a lot of credit for the player that I was, I didn’t buy into what they were saying then. I didn’t believe that hype so now that everything is switched and people are showing me all this love and finally respecting what I do, I’m feeling the same way about it. I appreciate it but I don’t buy into it too much the same way as I didn’t buy into it before all of this was here.
Dime: Why weren’t you recruited heavily out of high school?
DL: I don’t think I got a lot of exposure. The area that I’m from, Oakland, they didn’t recruit a lot out of there. I got better late. I was always a good player but I really kicked off eleventh and twelfth grade. I just got overlooked.
Dime: Who was a major influence on you as a person and your game as well?
DL: A guy named Raymond Young. I’m real close with him to this day. He was my AAU coach, started working with me in the eighth grade. Working with him, he taught me how to work hard. He pushed me real hard on and off the court. He taught me to value some things that I still value today and have the mindset that I still have to this day. I think buying into what he was getting me to see allowed me to get to this point.
Dime: Oakland has a lineage of players from Jason Kidd to Gary Payton. What does it mean to be a ball player from Oakland?
DL: It means a lot. Being a hooper from Oakland, it comes with a standard that you gotta hold, especially being a point guard. You gotta be tough and you gotta be competitive and I think all those guys from Oakland that made it had those characteristics. Now that I’m going to be the next one, it’s a standard that I gotta hold it up to. Show people this is what Oakland guards are about.
Dime: To this day even when you’re working out for NBA teams, do you still carry that chip on your shoulder of being overlooked and playing at Weber State?
DL: I gotta keep it because it’s what got me to this point. I have always had to prove myself. Right now, they’re giving me some respect. I’ll be a lottery pick, but I know it’s still a lot of people that probably don’t think I’m worthy of a lottery pick. Just the fact that I know people doubted me at every level and it’s always going to be those people. I’m always going to have that chip on my shoulder because I’ve always been the underdog. They’re probably expecting me not to do well. I know its people out there like that and I’m gonna keep working to show them that I belong.
Dime: You’re an athletic, strong, explosive, scoring point guard. What is your take on this wave of points like Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose?
DL: I think that’s what’s really helping me a lot. Just the fact that the Bulls, they’ve had a lot of success with Derrick Rose being that type of point guard. Oklahoma City is in the Finals having success with that kind of point guard. Steph Curry, same kind of point guard. Not as explosive, but the same thing and Deron Williams. All of them are scorers but they get the job done for their team and I feel like just the fact that it’s becoming more common in the league, with the type of guard that I am and those guards, I think it plays into my favor.
Dime: Westbrook has received a lot of criticism lately for not being what people consider a true point guard. What do you say to those who don’t really like the term scoring point guard?
DL: What he does helps their team. People say get the ball to Durant…get the ball to Durant and in the same situation he can shoot and give the ball to Durant just to keep it going because he’s the best scorer in the league. I feel like the type that Russell Westbrook is, him constantly being on attack and being aggressive is why it looks so easy when Kevin Durant scores because he’s taking so much attention and people know he’s always in attack mode. If he’s scoring 25 and being aggressive, it’s going to be another person that you have to pay attention to and that makes it a lot easier for Kevin Durant. So I think for Oklahoma City it works and I think that’s why they’re in the Finals.
Dime: What aspect of your game do you think has surprised teams?
DL: I think people knew that I could shoot. They didn’t know how well I could shoot. A lot of my workouts I’m knocking down shots and they step me out to the NBA line and it’s the same thing. It’s the same jumper. I’m not having to shoot it hard or anything like that. It’s easier for me to shoot. I think my athleticism has surprised them a lot.
Dime: Do you think scouts put too much of an emphasis on the level of competition a player faces in college instead of recognizing a player’s individual talent?
DL: Yeah, I think they do because you look at a guy like Norris Cole (Cleveland State), who hasn’t been great, but he’s been doing well. You can tell he belongs in the NBA. George Hill (IUPUI), coming out of a small school, same size, he even broke the same bone in his foot as I did. A similar point guard and he’s been real good in the league. Steve Nash (Santa Clara), he didn’t go to a high major school. If you can play you can play. It wasn’t like I went out to a mid-major school and just fit in. I feel like I dominated the level that I played at. I went to Cincinnati and scored 30. I went to Arizona and scored 20. I feel like I’ve proven that I can play with the highest level guys. I think it’s definitely too much emphasis put on the level that I played at.
Dime: You have the same agent as Gary Payton, Aaron Goodwin. Have you had any interaction with Gary?
DL: Yeah, I’ve talked to GP. Most of the stuff we talk about is defense. He was telling me that I got a lot of game offensively, but I’d take myself to the next level if I became a better defender. So I’ve been working on a lot of lateral movement stuff with Ant (personal trainer) and explosiveness.
Dime: Have any of your workouts stood out to you or have they just been the same?
DL: They’ve all been similar. Toronto was the most different in just some of the drills. I didn’t have the ball in my hands as much. I think that Sacramento and Portland went really well. I really shot the ball. I didn’t miss a lot of shots. I didn’t miss a lot of shots in any of the workouts but in those two workouts I was really on.
Dime: Next week your dreams are going to come true, you’ll be able to help your family. I mean this is a childhood dream. What does this feel like?
DL: To be honest I’m not an overly emotional dude. Right now, I kind of just feel like I’m just auditioning for teams. I’m kind of in disbelief. I don’t really realize how real it is. It seems kind of surreal to me still just because I didn’t expect to be in this position coming into the year but I know emotions are going to be flying high when it all comes around.
Which team do you want to see draft Lillard?
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