by Branden J. Peters / @brandenlsk

When Damian Lillard dropped nearly 30 ppg on his way to earning back-to-back all Oakland Athletic League honors his junior and senior years in high school, he was overlooked and rated a two-star prospect. When he dominated the Big Sky conference at Weber State, he was still slept on. Even after he killed in Summer League after being drafted by the Trail Blazers, there were still doubters. All of these instances contributed to Lillard playing with a chip on his shoulder, which subsequently helped him to beast his way to Rookie of the Year honors last season and, according to us, one of the Top 50 players in the NBA.

Judging from his mentions in comments section of previous Top 50 player’s posts, Lillard is no longer under the radar or slept on. To paraphrase the great Tupac Shakur, All Eyez are now on Him.

Portland ended last season with a 13-game losing streak, which put an end to what would have been an unlikely playoff appearance for the team. During that stretch Lillard was extremely sporadic. Games littered with low shooting percentages (.214 vs OKC) and turnovers (8 of them in a nine-point loss to Denver) were the norm. Conventional wisdom says that Lillard most likely hit that invisible but oh so real rookie wall.

Clearly Portland’s slide wasn’t all on Lillard—the bench was marginal at best—but even as a rookie, he took on the responsibility of a leader and with that responsibility comes criticism.

Dame doesn’t shy away from that role but he knows he can do better:

“I’ve improved individually, but I think this year as the point guard and leader of the team, I could be more assertive in that role. Whether it’s speaking up more or taking over control of certain situations, I think I could have done a better job of that last season. Now that I got that first season under my belt, I think I’ll be more comfortable doing it. I’ll be better as a player and as a leader.”

Lillard’s 19 ppg and 6.5 apg are super solid stats that got him the ROY award. But keep digging and you also see that he averaged 3 turnovers per game and shot a paltry .429 FG% and .368 from beyond the arch. Kind of ugly right? Lillard’s quickness (that pull-up jumper is mean) and willingness to take contact are innate abilities that also helped him get to the line for about 3.5 ppg.

Enough of last year’s stats, this list isn’t about legacy or what has already happened, it is about what the SLAM team believes these players will contribute to their team in the upcoming season. So let’s break that down.

The additions of CJ McCollum and Mo Williams (and holdover Earl Watson) not only gives the Blazers extreme depth at the guard spot it also gives Lillard more of an opportunity to play off the ball. Both McCollum and Williams can run point and shoot, which should translate into open (read: better) shots for Lillard and less turnovers, if he doesn’t have to always handle the rock.

Lillard tied for second in the League with Kobe Bryant for most minutes played per game at 38.6 (remember that rookie wall thing?) largely because the Blazers relied too heavily on him. This year he’ll most likely play less minutes with the depth the team has. This will probably decrease his PPG and APG but he’ll be less fatigued down the stretches of games and that should contribute to better decisions and more wins.

There will be a lot of naysayers for placing him so high but there is no debating that Lillard is already arguably a top-10 point guard in the League. There are guys who shoot better, dunk more and have fancier passes, but Lillard brings that solid, tough, night-in-and-night-out game that many of his contemporaries lack.

Coming into his second season, Lillard says his goals are to make the All-Star team, Team USA and make the Playoffs (he predicts 46 wins). But ending the season on a bad note immediately put the sophomore slump conversation into play. That banter is yet another chip Lillard can add to his already crowded shoulders. Given his history of proving doubters wrong, I wouldn’t bet against him on any of those goals.

 

Where should Damian Lillard rank in the SLAM Top 50?

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SLAMonline Top 50 Players 2013
Rank Player Team Position Pos. Rank
50 Monta Ellis Mavs SG 5
49 Luol Deng Bulls SF 10
48 Ricky Rubio TWolves PG 14
47 Greg Monroe Pistons PF 12
46 Kawhi Leonard Spurs SF 9
45 Mike Conley Grizzlies PG 13
44 Al Jefferson Bobcats C 9
43 David Lee Warriors PF 11
42 Jrue Holiday Pelicans PG 12
41 Anthony Davis Pelicans PF 10
40 Joe Johnson Nets SG 4
39 Serge Ibaka Thunder PF 9
38 Kevin Garnett Nets PF 8
37 Rudy Gay Raptors SF 8
36 Paul Pierce Nets SF 7
35 Ty Lawson Nuggets PG 11
34 Pau Gasol Lakers PF 7
33 Al Horford Hawks C 8
32 Andre Iguodala Warriors SF 6
31 Brook Lopez Nets C 7
30 Zach Randolph Grizzlies PF 6
29 DeMarcus Cousins Kings C 6
28 Damian Lillard Blazers PG 10

Rankings are based on expected contribution in ’13-14—to players’ team, the League and the game.