Before the NBA All-Star break unveiled the new cover of Dime Magazine, featuring Portland Trail Blazers phenom Damian Lillard. As we get ready to jump into the second half of the season, check out the full cover story from the issue here…
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.
Words. Andrew Greif Photos. Aaron Hewitt
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.”
Lillard is 6-2, 195 pounds, 22 years old and is the next logical step in the line of high-scoring point guards who alternately revolutionize and infuriate the NBA. His game is built around a foundation that combines his confidence, jumper and speed, all of which are necessities for the way his position is now played. The dribble-drive offense that arrived as a seedling from the college game has sunk strong roots into the NBA, which followed harder hand-checking rules on defenders. Together, with the current caliber of athletes playing, the definition of what it means to be a successful point guard has changed more than at any time since 6-9 Magic Johnson played the role.
“What we’re getting to in our league is if you’re good with the ball, and you are elite at one of two things â€” an Eric Bledsoe or Russell Westbrook type player, or you’re an elite level shooter â€” like a Kyrie Irving or Damian Lillard, Deron Williams â€” you can succeed at the point guard position in our league,” says Portland general manager Neil Olshey. “I don’t know if that would have been necessarily true a decade ago.”
Lillard leans on this group’s success for his No. 6 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, saying “without them I don’t think I would have” been selected as high as he was. Each of these “new” guards has stepped to the fore in his own way. Derrick Rose did it by carving his explosiveness out of the collective weight of Simeon High, John Calipari’s Lottery Factory reputation, and his hometown’s post-Jordan anxiety. Brandon Jennings did it by offering zero apologies for his shooting volume. Irving did it with a handle that backed up his No. 1 pick status after just 11 college games. Westbrook did it by discovering his most lethal parts, dunking and blinding acceleration, only as a high school senior.
But what made Damian Lillard? At his core, Oakland. Playing for three high schools in four years â€” and being buried as a sophomore reserve at Jason Kidd’s alma mater, St. Joseph Notre Dame High â€” stunted his national profile. His choice of the Oakland Rebels AAU team in eighth grade didn’t lend itself to publicity, either. The Rebels are a fine club that’s sent dozens of players to college, but it isn’t the recruiting pipeline like another Oakland AAU team, the Soldiers. They count LeBron James, Jennings, Chauncey Billups and new phenom Aaron Gordon as alumni. They are well-funded and travel nationally each year. After several high schools, a small AAU club and a small college career, Damian Lillard, just a few months into his NBA career, is on the verge of being a household name.
And yet, it almost wasn’t so. When Lillard threw a celebration for his draft selection in Oakland last summer, longtime Rebels assistant Damon Jones broke the party up into laughter with one of his favorite stories. Lillard played with a stone-faced style even when he was an eighth grade shooting guard, but head coach Raymond Young took it for the mark of a disinterested player.
“I was like man, do you remember when coach Ray was saying you couldn’t play for him?” says Jones. “He was going to leave the program or you had to leave? We laughed about it. That’s what it came down to – he was like, ‘Man this kid can’t play for me. He goes or I go.’
“We had this workout where he made it mandatory that guys showed up or they’d get cut,” continues Jones. “Guess who’s the only one who came? He worked out for two hours. Damian was the only one.”
Just as with Young, Lillard’s introduction at Oakland High wasn’t effortless the way it was at Weber State, where he was the Big Sky Freshman of the Year and its MVP a year later, or in Portland. Watkins yanked Lillard from a summer game when, after telling him to be in better help position on defense, Lillard reached instead of hustling to take a charge the very next possession. He was told as long as he bought in to playing defense, he could play for O-High. Lillard reassured Watkins he would. Finally, Lillard had his stage.
For as many improvements as he made both at Weber State, where he moved from a sometimes shooting guard to a full-time point guard, and against NBA competition, the die was cast in the crucible of the Oakland Athletic League. Jimmy Durkin, a reporter at the Oakland Tribune, has covered prep sports there since Lillard’s older brother, Houston, was a football standout. He saw Damian’s game take shape amid a “chaotic” atmosphere. “That tends to boil onto the court,” says Durkin. “The fact he was pretty calm during some of those games, when what’s going on in the bleachers is almost chaos. The atmosphere is almost through the roof. The fact he was always pretty calm and collected in a chaotic situation speaks to the player he is.”
Playing in those Oakland Athletic League gyms may be one reason why Lillard, now moving with the photoshoot into the Trail Blazers’ weight room, nearly comes to a full stop in his adidas Crazy 8 sneakers when asked if he’s ever played scared.
“Nervous maybe, but not scared,” Lillard says. He’s wearing a white T-shirt whose slogan â€” “Don’t Doubt Me” â€” seems laughable just months after his four seasons in the Big Sky Conference was an asterisk to many. “I’m not scared to play nobody.”
“He was always kind of like that,” says Durkin. “He always seemed to be, even in high school, a pretty mature player. I remember one of their league rivals, McClymonds, went 32-0 and won the state title. They faced off three times and nearly played in the Nor Cal title game for a fourth matchup. In a regular-season game McClymonds won on a three-pointer and he just said, ‘We’re going to see them again.'”
Over the phone from Sacramento, Oakland High coach Watkins is animated re-enacting McClymonds’ 54-51 win in Lillard’s 2008 senior season. “We were down and Dame had this look like, we’re going to get us this victory,” recalls Watkins. “The shot to tie the game he shot, no lie, was a foot behind the NBA line to tie the game. Then we go down, we get a stop, Dame actually got fouled four times. The fourth foul the ball spurted out and it spurted out for a wide-open layup and the teammate missed. The moral of the story is the young man dribbled through the whole team, got fouled four times and after the game he said I’m worried about the next time I play them.”
Lillard hasn’t forgotten Oakland. Both the Rebels and Oakland High are now outfitted all in adidas gear â€” for free â€” because of Lillard’s generosity. When he trains, he runs on local beaches and shoots jumpers still at his old haunts. During one post-draft workout at Oakland High last summer, Lillard watched as Watkins’ players couldn’t complete a conditioning drill. He walked from the end of the court where he was shooting, jumped in the drill alongside the team, and everyone made it.
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Portland’s well-known historic trouble with high draft picks came because the team was locked into getting the best player at its position of most need. That’s how centers Sam Bowie and Greg Oden were chosen ahead of Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant, obviously talented players whose positions were covered at the time by established Blazers talents Clyde Drexler and Brandon Roy.
Undaunted, Portland’s GM says he entered the 2012 Draft only looking for a point guard with his first pick and Lillard as its only target. (As for Lillard, he knew Portland wanted him – his Draft night suit included black pants and a red pocket square to match the team’s color scheme.) Damian reportedly missed just two shots in his entire pre-draft workout in Portland, a performance that isn’t hard to believe given the shooting displayed in his four-part “License to Lillard” YouTube series that has more than 400,000 total views â€” including one from Nuggets guard Ty Lawson.
“I looked at his YouTube and thought we had a big shot,” says Lawson when asked about the series. “When he got to the league he showed everybody.”
From that workout and Lillard’s dinner and interview with owner Paul Allen, the Blazers’ front office came away enamored as much by his on-ball skill as the way he carried himself. Like any talent evaluator, Olshey covets “translatable” skills.
“I think he’s a wonderful player,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, himself famous for his no-frills presentation, told the assembled media after that December loss to Portland. “His skills are obvious, but I like his demeanor as much as I like his skills.”
“I think it’s just my personality, it just carries over to the way I play,” says Lillard, explaining why he doesn’t often talk to opponents â€” smack or otherwise â€” when he plays. “I’ve had times where guys have pushed me to that point but that’s not me at all.”
The value of such an approach is plain as day in an NBA season’s typical ebbs and flows. What is remarkable for the rookie is just that there have been more exultant moments like his game-winning, 26-foot three-pointer to beat the Hornets just three days after stunning the Spurs, than there have been stumbles, such as 4-of-17 and 6-of-21 shooting nights against the Lakers and Wizards.
Take, too, his three-pointer in Madison Square Garden on New Year’s Day with a minute left in the fourth quarter. Isolated and dribbling slowly toward the top of the arc, he stepped back behind it to hit a cold-blooded triple to put Portland up six, ruining Amar’e Stoudemire’s season debut and Carmelo Anthony’s 45-point game.
“It wasn’t always like it is now. I just have to remember the position I came from and not to let it go to my head,” says Lillard. “The second it doesn’t go so well I’ll be right back to the way it was before.” By this he means, the player who’s been doubted for playing on the other AAU team, the three high schools, the unseen college. For the record, he has no such short leash with his new franchise. Back at Lillard’s mid-December photoshoot Olshey, wearing a black jumpsuit and an ear-to-ear smile, can see what’s happening from his office adjacent to the practice court but pops his head around the corner of its entrance anyway. “What’s up, cover boy!” he shouts toward Lillard, who hops over to hug his GM.
Olshey, who was a Clippers executive for Blake Griffin’s rookie ascension, recedes from the court to share a telling story about one interview for Portland’s head coaching job after Lillard’s selection: “We interviewed a guy at one point, and were talking about utilizing Idaho (of the D-League) and someone said, ‘Well, if you send this guy, this guy, this guy and Damian …’ And I just laughed and said, “Yeah, Damian won’t be spending any time in Idaho.’
“We all on draft day kind of walked away knowing probably six months before everybody else would learn, what we kind of hoped and knew back in June was that he’s a franchise-caliber point guard.”
If there is a concern with Lillard, it clearly is not with his jumper or reading of defenses. According to DraftExpress, Damian was the best guard in his draft class at points per possession on pick and rolls and in isolation when he used a screen. Nor should it be with his distribution. Out of every rookie guard since 1947 averaging 15 minutes per game, Lillard is 60th in assist percentage. That’s better than the rookie seasons of Westbrook, Rose and Deron Williams. And yet, only four ahead of him committed fewer turnovers per 100 possessions. Offensive concepts don’t change much from each level, but he readily admits it took time getting used to being guarded “by 6-4 guys with 6-10 wingspans.”
One of his drawbacks from Weber State has also stayed true in the pros: Lillard was only fair at scoring at the rim in college. His bottom-10 ranking among guards in shooting percentage there this season continues the trend. Even with this fault, he gets a pass because his top-10 ranking in attempts at the rim means he’s beaten his defender to simply get there, which creates opportunities to either pass or draw a foul.
He isn’t perfect but rarely beats himself by forcing a pass or taking ill-advised shots. His self-confidence is not also a blinder; he knows when to defer to Aldridge, Nicolas Batum or Wesley Matthews. Discovering the right combination of drive or pass and push pace or hold is the nuance every player takes time to master. Again, Lillard is just at an accelerated rate in his learning curve. When he sits, the Blazers score 13.1 fewer points per 100 possessions than when he plays. He is less consistent defensively at keeping opponents in front of him, but he isn’t an anchor weighing down the defense, either: Portland allows just 2.4 more points per 100 possessions when he plays.
“He’s a terrific player,” says Lakers guard Steve Nash before a late-December matchup with Lillard. “He looks like the Rookie of the Year. He’s going to have a great career.”
“Right now I’m playing well so far so people might have forgotten about them not thinking I’d be able to play as well at this level,” says Lillard. “Then it’ll be like, ‘That was just his rookie year.’ There’s always something.”
It brings us to another notable accomplishment for Lillard, one that as a new Portland resident, he might be at a loss to fully understand. The city’s well-earned cynicism is slowing thawing, won over little by little by a team â€” and a rookie point guard â€” exceeding its projection. It’s a defensive mechanism, an evolutionary trait found in this fan base not to give your whole heart away to players this early in their careers. Sure, the leg injuries following Sam Bowie’s No. 1 pick in 1984 have haunted the team, but they were buffeted by 21 straight seasons in the playoffs. And yes, Bill Walton’s devastating back injury developed a grudge against the team so bad he sat out the 1978-79 season in protest, but it was mitigated by that ’77 NBA title. Fool me once, and there was Oden. Fool me twice, and there was Brandon Roy, whose arthritic knees turned the beloved 2006 Rookie of the Year into a retiree by 2010. The optimism is back with Lillard.
He isn’t some machine, though. He’s yawning as a three-hour photoshoot comes to an end, with spurts of pent-up energy coming out in a few impromptu bars of a song. What’s he going to do now? He says he might hang out with his mom and teenaged sister, who live with him now in the area, or maybe relax with his best friend from Oakland who goes to college just up the road. Either way, he’d like to be on his way but is too nice to come out and say it.
Finally getting the chance to leave, he pulls away from Trail Blazers HQ in a sports car whose obvious power is out of place on this quiet, wooded road. Three turns later and he’s crossed over to the interstate. Surrounded by rush-hour chaos, he’s in a familiar position: calm, in control and headed for the city’s bright lights.
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