DimeMag

Damian Lillard And The Trail Blazers Are Ready for Big Things This Year

“Hungry.”

That’s the word Damian Lillard used to describe his mentality toward the coming season as the Portland Trailblazers opened training camp Monday at the Moda Center.

Since bursting onto the scene two years ago, the intrepid point guard has quickly become one of the league’s hottest young stars. He’s also become one of its most marketable personalities, thanks to his high-profile endorsement with adidas and his weekly freestyle rap videos “4-Bar Fridays.”

After running away with the Rookie of the Year award in 2013 (he’s one of only four players to win by unanimous decision), Lillard rode that momentum to his first All-Star selection last February, where he increased his visibility tenfold by participating in just about every event throughout the weekend: the Rising Stars Challenge, the Slam Dunk Contest, the Skills Challenge, and the Three-Point Shootout (not to mention the All-Star Game itself).

In just his second year, Lillard led the Trailblazers to a 54-win season and a fifth seed in the stacked and unforgiving Western Conference. In Game 6 of their first-round series against the Houston Rockets, Lillard catapulted the Blazers into the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 14 years with his now-legendary series-clinching three.

//platform.vine.co/static/scripts/embed.js

Unfortunately, the Blazers then faced a San Antonio Spurs juggernaut that bulldozed the young squad in five games en route to an NBA Championship. That experience is something Lillard is using as motivation for the upcoming season. Lillard said Monday that he watched the entire series twice over the summer just to try to figure out what went wrong.

“The biggest thing I took from it was we ran out of gas, and we ran up against a better team, a team that ended up being the champions.”

And perhaps taking note of LeBron James’ and Carmelo Anthony’s recent physical transformations, Lillard has also made drastic changes to his own diet, such as cutting out fast food, sugar, and salty foods.

“That’s been for about two and a half months now, and I feel great,” Lillard said. “I wake up in the morning, and I got a lot more energy just from paying attention to my diet. I’ve been amazed by some of the things I’ve seen change with my body and how I feel just because of my diet.”

He’s also drawing motivation from being cut from the USA Men’s National Team that took gold at the FIBA World Cup of Basketball earlier this month. Although he was grateful for the experience and the opportunity to compete against top players, he also said he took it is a personal indictment on his abilities.

“I’ve always been one to throw wood on the fire any time I got the opportunity,” he said. “Once I was turned away from making that team, I basically took it as, ‘You’re not good enough.’ So that was another reason for me to go back and keep trying to improve as a player.”

Given last year’s Cinderella season, Lillard and the rest of his teammates enter the 2014-2015 campaign with even loftier expectations. A big part of the Trailblazers’ success last season was catching the rest of the league off-guard and getting off to such a hot start. During one stretch in November, the Blazers rattled off 11 straight wins and went 13-2 overall for the month. Part of that success was due to Coach Terry Stott’s highly potent offense that finished the season ranked fourth overall in scoring at 106.7 points per game. Lillard and the rest of the Blazers are hoping to pick up right where they left off in that department.

“Everybody is familiar with what type of offense we run,” he said. “We’re familiar with our coaching staff, we’re familiar with the type of personalities that we’re dealing with, and I think that’s big. The chemistry that we had last season was a big part of why we were able to be successful. I think the fact that not a lot has changed coming into this season…we won’t have to start where we started last year. We can kind of put a few pieces together and pick up a few things and just try to pick up where we left off.”

Lillard was a big part of the Blazers’ scoring onslaught as he averaged 20.7 points and 5.6 assists per game. His 42.4 percent shooting from the field was a pretty average mark by most standards, but he buoyed his numbers with a well-above average 39.4 percent clip from three-point land. In fact, his numbers from behind-the-arc have already reached historic levels. Last year, he set the franchise mark for most three-pointers made in a single season (218), and he’s already eighth on the Blazers’ all-time list of three-pointers made (403). Lillard is also among the top five players in NBA history in terms of points (3,257) and assists (988) tallied up through the first two seasons of their careers. The other names on that list are LeBron James, Allen Iverson, Nate “Tiny” Archibald, and Oscar Robertson.

So it came as no surprise when the team announced Monday that they were picking up the fourth-year option on his rookie contract, which will keep him in Portland until at least 2016.

There was a lot of talk Monday among the players, coaches, and executives about what it means to embrace the idea of being an elite team, and for Lillard that means continued progress in all aspects of his game.

“I just want to be a better player than I was last season. I don’t know if that’ll mean better numbers or whatever, but I just want to do whatever I can to make the team a better team. We got a taste of victory in the playoffs. Now I just want to try to move past that.”

Can Damian Lillard lead the Trail Blazers to championship contention this season?

Follow Jamie on Twitter at @WinoCarpenter.

Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.

Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.

×