Portland rookie Damian Lillard has started all eight games for his team this season. In those games, he’s played exceptionally well, averaging over 18 points, six assists and a steal per game. It’s only eight games over a long season, but he’s playing well enough to garner the only Rookie of the Year talk that isn’t heaped on Anthony Davis. It’s important to look at things in context: How does Lillard stack up against more established point guards over the last 10 years… specifically, point guards who started when they came into the league, like Lillard is doing now?
The key in looking at Lillard’s numbers, since it’s such a small sample size, is to focus on players that started at point guard almost immediately after entering the league. For example, Deron Williams and Rajon Rondo are two of the best point guards in the league, but Williams didn’t get his first start until his ninth game of his rookie season (you can be sure Jerry Sloan had to be knocked over by Williams’ obvious talent to start him so soon at point), and Rondo didn’t start until the 42nd game of his rookie season. Rondo only ended up starting 25 total games in his rookie campaign. So they’re out, but I did arrive at five current players that matched the criteria.
Here is who I’ll be comparing Lillard to: John Wall, Chris Paul, Brandon Jennings, Stephen Curry and Derrick Rose. All five of these players started at point guard in their first eight games of their rookie seasons. All have achieved some measure of respectability in the league already, although Wall is still an enigma out with an injury, and everyone is still worried about Curry’s ankle and Rose’s knee. Regardless, we can see how these players started out their rookie seasons and see if we can glean any idea of Lillard’s future potential.
A comparison of their rookie averages, Lillard in his eight games and the other five over the course of their first full seasons, shows some interesting differences and parallels. Lillard is averaging more points per game on a per 36-minute basis (all averages will be on the 36-minute basis moving forward). He’s in the middle of the pack for assists, averaging 6.3, which is below John Wall and Chris Paul, even with Brandon Jennings, but more than Rose and Curry. He’s also shooting about average for this group, 43 percent from the field, tied with Chris Paul, but more than John Wall and Brandon Jennings. Derrick Rose and Stephen Curry both shot over 45 percent from the field in their rookie seasons. However, his three-point shooting is the second-best for the group as he and Curry are the only ones over 40 percent from long range in their rookie seasons.
What about protecting the ball? Freshman point guards in the NBA have a tendency to turn the ball over more often, and Lillard is second on this list for turnovers per 36 minutes. The only player that averaged more turnovers his rookie year was, not surprisingly, John Wall with 3.6, compared to Lillard’s 3.2. Chris Paul leads the group in this category: he turned the ball over only 2.3 times per 36 minutes as a rook.
Defense is also graded on a curve once players make the jump to the NBA, and the competition tends to wear a lot of rookies out. It’s not a perfect representation of how they fared on defense, but steals and an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions (defensive rating) can give us some idea of how these guards fared on defense in their rookie seasons. Brandon Jennings and Chris Paul allowed the least amount of points per 100 possessions (104 each), but Lillard holds his own in this group, tying Stephen Curry at 111, but beating Derrick Rose’s 113. In terms of swiping the ball, Paul is the only one on this list over two a game for the entirety of his rookie season, but Stephen Curry was just a tenth of a steal behind at 1.9. Lillard is at 1.2 per through 8 games, which is good for 5th on this list, with only Rose recording less at 0.8 a game.
But, remember, for the above stats we’re looking at a much larger sample size than Lillard’s eight games. So how did these guys do in their opening couple weeks? Well, one of them, Jennings, dropped 55 points in just his seventh game of the season. In the game just preceding that one, he had 32 points against Denver, and in the game after his 55 outburst, he scored 25 points on Dallas but shot less than 45 percent. This would be a trend for Jennings’ entire rookie year: even with the scoring outbursts and efficient shooting in his first month of the season, Jennings shot just 37 percent from the field on the season as a whole, and still averaged less (over his full season) than Lillard through his first eight games.
John Wall’s first eight games showed a player that could score and distribute – putting up double figures in each game, and dishing out double-figure assist totals four times times. But he was also someone that could be a bit reckless with the ball. In his third, fourth and fifth games, he turned the ball over a total of 23 times. Even now, Wall still struggles to cut down on the turnovers. Lillard has also turned the ball over quite a bit, averaging 3.2 per 36 through his first eight, but that’s still under Wall’s 3.6 rookie mark.
Through his first eight games, Stephen Curry could definitely be considered the underachiever on this list. He cracked double figures in scoring on only two nights, and had no double-digit assist games. After playing only two minutes against the Knicks during his eighth game of the season, Curry rebounded from the slow start by scoring in double figures in his next seven games. Curry’s play really picked up in the latter half of the season. He didn’t record 10 assists in a game until February, but he achieved that milestone in style, recording 36 points, 10 rebounds and 13 assists for his first triple-double.
The two players that most closely resemble Lillard through his first eight games are Chris Paul and Derrick Rose. There’s a consistency to all three of their performances, an excellent sign for Blazers fans. Through his first eight games, Derrick Rose cracked 20 points on three occasions, and never fell into single digits. He also had a couple of nine-assist games, and in the eighth game of his rookie year, he recorded 26 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Chris Paul also never fell below below double-figures in scoring during his first eight games, and he produced two games with double-figure assists, including his eighth game of his rookie year where he scored 25 points, handed out 12 dimes and grabbed seven rebounds.
While Lillard’s eighth game against Sacramento this year wasn’t as good as Rose and Paul’s eighth game of their rookie seasons, it was still pretty solid: 22 points, nine assists, and four turnovers, and his totals up to now best or match Paul and Rose’s totals. He only had one game, his first against the Lakers, where he recorded a double-double, scoring 23 points and handing out 11 dimes, but he’s also had a couple nine-assist games while cracking 20 points in five of his first eight. He’s scoring better than Paul and Rose did at this point of their rookie seasons, but he’s also dishing about as well as Paul did and slightly better than Rose.
What this all really means depends on how much more Lillard develops. He’s already 22 and a half years old (Wall is actually younger). Just looking at a sample size of eight games is not enough to foreshadow how Lillard’s career will go. As we’ve seen with both Wall and Curry, injuries could take their toll or rob Lillard of his quickness. But his consistency at this level while playing point guard is a really good sign. He’s a tad reckless with the ball, but his numbers and maturity under pressure signify a career that has a good chance at stardom.
All of these players are among the best point guards in the league, and Wall and Curry would be higher if they hadn’t battled injuries the last couple years. Damian Lillard has only played eight games in the NBA, but based off those eight games, and the first eight games of the point guards mentioned, he has a very bright future in the cloudy climes of the Pacific Northwest.
How good will Lillard be?
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