*** *** ***
The Portland Trail Blazers might have just made up for drafting Sam Bowie over MJ and Greg Oden over Kevin Durant. Meet Damian Lillard, arguably the most exciting rookie since LeBron James landed in the NBA.
A hum of quiet contentment hangs around the Portland Trail Blazers’ headquarters that matches the gray mid-December day outside its doors. It’s a day off for players, meaning the modern suburban office-looking building feels desolate; there isn’t even a receptionist waiting inside the entrance. Proudly lit in a foyer case, the 1977 Larry O’Brien trophy for the team’s only NBA title may as well be the de facto greeter. It makes the first appearance of an actual person â€” head coach Terry Stotts, shuffling quietly, head down, in black sandals and shorts and a team-issued T-shirt â€” stand out even more.
Today, the relaxed atmosphere is warranted. The evening before, 20 minutes away at pulsating, pounding Rose Garden arena, Portland handled the San Antonio Spurs with confidence that belies a team of young upstarts finding their way. Standing in a room adjacent to the practice court is the shiny new engine behind that pulse: first-year point guard Damian Lillard â€“ arguably the most exciting NBA rookie since LeBron James entered the League.
Fifteen hours removed from dropping 29 points on three-time champion Spurs guard Tony Parker, Lillard is here among piles of clothing options for our cover shoot, a motionless star orbited by a stylist and his agency and adidas reps. He’s taking direction like he’s in a different kind of huddle, evaluating choices like they are a pick and roll, his expression rarely changing from the now familiar cool gaze of a guy whose success has outweighed the surprise of it. Not two-time NBA Rookie of the Month honors, the 29 on Parker, leading all rookies in scoring (17.5 points per 36 minutes), assists (6.0) and minutes played (nearly 38 a game), none of it. Lillard’s self-belief is as high as anyone’s in the NBA, but unlike fellow Oakland guard Gary Payton, Damian’s all show, little tell.
“Nothing’s really surprised me,” he says matter-of-factly, changing with no wasted moves from his team’s red alternate uniform into the shoot’s second look.
It comes down to his confidence, the stuff that allowed him to become just the third player in NBA history to get at least 20 points and 10 assists in a career debut. It’s quietly broken some of the cynicism in Portland, accelerated the expectations for this team and made him the best player in the world the majority of basketball fans didn’t know about before June. After playing on his hometown’s AAU team with zero hype, and a Weber State team with little national visibility, he’s transitioned into a wanted man so well because his cool is steady.
“I’m impressed by everything he does, I’m just not amazed,” says Orlando Watkins, his coach for two seasons at Oakland High School. “The way he handles, it’s just him being him. … His whole goal was to make it to the NBA. I will say this with a confidence: When he came to my program. I knew he was going to make money playing basketball.”