by Daniel Friedman / @DFried615
“They say the truth shall come to the light… so everybody grab ya shades cuz ya boy that bright.” – DL
As we sat in the Champs Sports store in Times Square, NYC, Portland Trail Blazers point guard Dame Lillard was surrounded by his agents, a security detail, and a group of store employees. Just outside, a line around the block of hundreds of fans waited to get their chance to stand toe-to-toe with the NBA’s newly minted Rookie of the Year.
When we spoke, Lillard was poised and articulate about his thoughts in a particularly un-rookie-like manner. It was as if this occasion—signing autographs in Times Square for the release of a new colorway of his own pair of adidas brand kicks—was always part of the plan.
Objective No. 1: Take the League by storm and immediately earn a place among the greatest floor generals in history. In his first game, Lillard broke out with 23 points and 11 assists against the Los Angeles Lakers, joining Oscar Robertson and Isiah Thomas as the only players in NBA history to put up at least 20 points and dish out 10 dimes in their first outing.
Objective No. 2: Finish off the season strong by not missing a start, averaging 19 points and 6.5 assists per game, and outshining every other rookie in the League. In the final game of the season, a loss to the Golden State Warriors, Lillard seized the record for three-point field goals made by a rookie after hitting his 185th trey at the end of the game. That mark was also good for fifth overall in the League. When all was said and done, Lillard swept the Western Conference Rookie of the Month awards, winning every single one.
When compared to the rookie campaigns of other elite point guards like Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Deron Williams and Derrick Rose, Lillard ranks in the upper echelon in many of the statistical categories, including points per game. With that kind of company, the Weber State product seems to be on a fast track to NBA stardom.
It’s true that the Blazers haven’t had as low a winning percentage since the ’06-07 season, but remember, that was the year Brandon Roy won the ROY award and began to turn the franchise around. Portland fans have good reason to look forward to the future because the next phase of Lillard’s plan is obvious: continue to light up the stage.
Dame was in New York City to represent the Portland Trail Blazers at the 2013 NBA Draft Lottery, but first he stopped by the Champs Sports store on 7th Avenue to hang out with some of his biggest fans, and talk a little shop with SLAMonline.
SLAM: So what were your expectations going into your first season in the League?
Damian Lillard: I just wanted to have an impact, man. I knew I was going to have an opportunity because of how many [players] they had at my position. They weren’t really deep, so I knew I was going to have the opportunity, and I knew I was going to have to be productive if our team was going to win games. So coming in, I just told myself, “Be ready.” That was the biggest thing coming into the season, I wanted to be ready, I wanted to be productive so I could do my job, and it worked well.
SLAM: What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned this year?
DL: The biggest thing is to be consistent. I think when you’re able to perform every night in the League, that’s what makes you valuable. It’s such a long season, especially when you play a lot of minutes, it’s tough to bring it every night. But if can, that’s what can separate you and bring you apart from a lot of guys. So, the first thing, I learned is to be consistent. If you look at all the guys that you always hear about, like LeBron, KD, Westbrook, you can see that every night, their stat line is there, and their teams are winning a lot of games.
The second thing was to keep an open mind, especially as a rookie. Coming in I had to learn a lot on the fly. I was in the [spotlight] playing. My team was dependent on me a lot, so I had to watch a lot of film and I had to listen to what the refs were telling me. After games, I would listen to opposing veteran point guards and what they’d tell me. Chauncey Billups might throw something out there. Chris Paul might throw some tips out there. So I just kept an open mind about those things. I’m just trying to learn as much as I can, and just be consistent and be a sponge.
SLAM: You were asked to lead the Blazers right from the start. How did you deal with that kind of pressure so early on in your career?
DL: It’s natural for me. I’ve always been a leader. All the people that I keep in my circle are like general-type dudes. They’re leaders themselves and it’s just natural for me. The biggest thing is that I’m comfortable with myself. I know I’m going to take care of my own stuff, I know I’m going to work hard and handle my business. So I feel comfortable holding other people accountable and leading a group of men.
SLAM: How did you react when you heard you were being named Rookie of the Year?
DL: I was excited. There was a lot of talk about it. I remember last year in my interview, that’s what I said I wanted to do. I said, People might think I’m crazy, but I think I can do it.
With the opportunity I had and the amount of minutes I played, some people might say, “Oh, he played this many minutes. He’s supposed to be more productive.” But, it’s also harder to be productive when you play so much every night. So you could argue either way. I was really excited because I feel like it said a lot, and represented the situation that I come from.
SLAM: What aspects of your game do you think you still need to work on?
DL: I think I need to work on my solutions in the paint, floaters, being a little more crafty. I think I could be a better passer, and individually I also need to be a better defender. I need to get better defensively. I could also have a little bit more gamesmanship, drawing fouls, you know, just stuff like that.
There will be a lot of film that I’ve got to go back and watch to look back through the whole season to see how I’ve progressed, to see some of the things that I started to do better or some of the things that I still need to get better at.
SLAM: You mentioned going back to watch film, but are there any drills in particular that you and your coaches should be focusing on throughout the offseason?
DL: I’m sure that we’ll be doing a lot of different ball handling drills, just trying to keep the handle tight. We might try to add some different moves to my game just to get guys off balance. Like I said, that’s the same thing as being more crafty. A lot of times I use my speed and quickness to get places, and down the road that’s not always going to be there. So right now, I want to start developing that crafty part of my game.
SLAM: What kinds of things do the Trail Blazers need to work on for the ’13-14 season?
DL: As a team, the number one thing we need to get better at is defense, and it’s going to start with me. Being the point guard, I defend the guy who has the ball most of the time and I’m going to be the first guy that goes into the defensive stance when he’s bringing the ball up. So we need to get better defensively, we need to communicate better and I think we could have more desire to play the game. We could have more energy with the way we approach the game.
SLAM: You’re in New York representing Portland at the NBA Draft lottery tonight. Through the Draft, how should the Trail Blazers be looking to improve?
DL: We have a lot of good pieces. With me, Wes, Nic, LA and Meyers right now, and maybe JJ, I’m not sure, we have a lot of good pieces. But I think we could get another young athletic wing that can come in and score. I even think another big guy that can come and protect the paint, shot blocker, rebounder, athletic guy that can finish in the paint and dunk the ball. I think those are the type of guys that we could use next season.
SLAM: Are there any particular players that Portland fans should keep their eyes on in the upcoming Draft?
DL: CJ McCollum from Lehigh. His situation is similar to mine. So similar that it’s crazy because he’s about 6-3 and a half, maybe 6-4. He’s a scoring combo-guard. Played for four years at school and broke his foot, the same part I broke, and he’s supposed to be a lottery pick. I think he’s worthy of being a top-10 pick.
So I think [Portland fans] should definitely keep their eyes on him. And I mean everybody knows the names. The names are out there, that’s just a person that they might not know that I wanted to throw in there.
SLAM: It seems like it’s going to be a trend for teams to feature scoring point guards like you in the future. How do you feel the role of that position has changed over the years?
DL: In the past, you would see the point guard as more of a facilitator, you know, they’d run the team, be a floor general and they’d be more of a playmaker.
Now, you see a lot more 6-2 or 6-3 point guards that can really score and are really athletic. But a lot of times you’ll see score-first but make-the-right-play type point guards, and I think that’s what a lot of teams are going after now because it’s more common. You see Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook…guys like me.
That’s the type of point guard I am. I’m a scoring, athletic point guard that makes the right play, and that’s what’s winning now. Chris Paul and Rondo, those are facilitators, and both of those guys can also score the ball. So you’ll see more point guards like that [in the future].
SLAM: In this year’s Playoffs, we have a lot of defensively oriented teams with the advantage. Who do you think will take the crown in the Finals? Or are you even thinking about that kind of thing?
DL: I think Miami will win it. But all four teams are really good defensively. I think the Spurs are a really good defensive team. Miami’s obviously one of the best defensive teams because they’re just so athletic. They got really good defenders from top to bottom, all of them can rotate so good, and they’re long. And then you have the Pacers, who clog the paint and protect the rim. They got long guys, good defenders. So I think it’s four really good defensive teams, but at the end of the day, Miami has three stars that play great on both ends of the ball and they bring it every game. It’s just tough to beat them in seven games.
SLAM: Let’s talk about the new Rookie of the Year colorway for your adidas Real Deal shoe. What’s the significance and where’d you get the inspiration for the design?
DL: I think that everything that’s on this shoe represents me. I had the opportunity to go over everything on that shoe. Everything came from my mind, so it was basically me creating it. It was my idea, a lot of my ideas. So just the fact that the Rookie of the Year could happen, I’m just excited about it.
SLAM: Looking forward to next season, do you have any specific goals or milestones that you’re trying to reach for you or the team?
DL: For our team, I think we had the chance to make the Playoffs this year. So I think with one more year, we’ll have more chemistry, we’ll know each other better, and with some pieces that we’ll have, I think we should be a Playoff team. That’s my number one goal, I want to try and help us get into the Playoffs. Second thing is I want to get on the All-Star team. I want to make the All-Star team for the first time next year.