The Man in the Big Sky
Weber State’s Damian Lillard takes the Big Sky Conference by storm.
by Kyle Stack / @KyleStack
Ask an NBA fan to name the League’s top three scorers and it’s likely that person can tick off the appropriate names – Kobe, Durant, LeBron. Try the same test with a college basketball fan. Unless that person is an aficionado of the mid-major conferences, it’s a good bet the top three names won’t come to mind. Damian Lillard is one of those names.
The 6’3 Weber State redshirt junior guard has set the Big Sky Conference, and the nation, on fire all season with his scoring ability. Currently second in Division I with a 24.7 points-per-game average – Oakland’s Reggie Hamilton is first at 25.5 – Lillard has his squad set for a regular season conference title matchup Tuesday night with Montana.
With each team at 14-1 in-conference, Weber State (23-4 overall) has a chance to exact some measure of revenge against Montana (22-6).
It was in Lillard’s 2009-10 sophomore campaign, a season in which he was named Big Sky MVP, that Montana beat Weber in the conference tournament title game to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament. In ’11, Lillard sat on the bench with a right foot injury suffered early in the season and watched his Wildcats fall to the Grizzlies in the semifinals of the Big Sky’s conference tournament.
Out all but nine games of last season with a broken bone in that right foot, Lillard missed enough time that he was able to gain a medical redshirt. That meant he could play this year as a redshirt junior, preserving one more college season if he so chooses to use it. He might not need it, as the NBA beckons. For now, the focus is on the Big Sky tournament, which begins March 3.
“I can remember my freshman year, even my sophomore year, we kind of got ahead of ourselves and started to think about the big picture a little bit too soon,” Lillard said by phone after a recent practice. “There are a lot of things that come before the big picture.”
It’s Lillard’s ridiculous scoring clip that has helped push Weber State to this point. Junior guard Scott Bamforth (15.2 ppg) and sophomore center Kyle Tresnak (10.1 ppg) are solid contributors, but Lillard’s play has turned him into the Big Sky’s best all-around player since Detroit Pistons guard Rodney Stuckey played at Eastern Washington from ’05-07.
He scores, he dishes (4.1 apg), he defends (1.4 spg) and he leads. Witness the career-high 41 points he dropped on San Jose State during a double-overtime win, 91-89, on December 3. Lillard, who drilled six three-pointers during the victory, stated after the game that he knew he had to be “The Man” for his team to come out on top. He reflected on that comment.
“That’s my role on this team is to lead,” said Lillard, a native of Oakland, Calif. “Guys listen to me and I’ve been around here as long as anybody.”
He stated that his workouts during last summer geared him up for his big season. Coming off a foot injury, Lillard understood that he had to step up his game.
“I’ve shot so much in workouts and got my confidence up so much and learned so much more about myself,” he said. “I’ve built my body up during that time I was hurt with swimming and leg workouts and upper body strength just getting into tip-top shape.”
A five-part YouTube series illustrated his determination to improve during the off-season. One area of focus in his workouts was his three-point range. Lillard said that rather than make 10 shots without setting a limit on attempts, he gave himself 12 tries to hit 10. He felt holding himself to a higher standard would increase his accuracy, which would expand his offensive versatility.
“Now that I’ve been able to knock down those deep 3′s and make a high percentage of them, I think guys close out to me a lot further out now,” Lillard said. “People give me more space. I can get to the rim as well and [hitting 3's] helps me. Since people play me out so far, it gives me a chance to get by them and there’s more room after I get by them. It gives me a chance to get to the rim.”
Lillard’s 45 percent clip from long range is impressive, all the more considering that he averages seven attempts per game from downtown. And his 89 percent mark from the free throw line means that he’s able to be aggressive by going to the hoop.
Deane Martin, the interim head coach for Idaho State, said he directed his players who were defending Lillard during two regular season games to stay with him, go over screens and attempt to get the ball out of his hands.
“That’s one thing you have to try to do with him because no matter what you do defensively, he’s got enough game off the dribble,” said Martin, who also stated that Lillard is consistent on defense. “The man can shoot. He reads screens well coming off screens. There’s a lot of things he’s able to do. You can’t prepare for all of them.”
He would know, as Lillard scored 26 during Weber’s 78-64 victory December 29. Idaho State adjusted in their subsequent matchup January 28 by holding Lillard to 15 points on 5-for-14 shooting in a 64-62 Idaho State win – Weber’s only loss in 18 games heading into the contest against Montana.
With his college career possibly coming to an end, assuming he declares early for the NBA Draft, Lillard insisted that enjoying his remaining time in college is all that occupies his mind. Not the NBA.
“I never thought about preparing my game for that level,” he said. “I just wanted to prepare myself for coming out and having a great season and help my team win games.”
His game might already be NBA-ready. One talent evaluator for an Eastern Conference team compared Lillard to a certain NBA MVP.
“He’s very athletic. He’s not quite as big or powerful as Derrick Rose, but he’s very athletic, he’s quick, he’s got ball skills,” said the front office person, who requested anonymity given the sensitivity of speaking publicly about a college player. “He’s not as good a finisher as Derrick. I’m not saying he’s Derrick Rose, but he has similarities.”
The evaluator stated that if Lillard were playing at a major conference school, then “everybody would be talking about him as a lock to be a lottery pick.”
Chad Ford, ESPN.com’s NBA Draft guru, has Lillard ranked 13th on his top-100 board of potential draftees, according to a February 21 update. NBADraft.net predicted in a February 24 mock draft that Lillard will be chosen 20th overall.
Wherever he’s selected, if he decides to enter the draft, basketball fans by then will know what they should understand now: Lillard is not only one of college basketball’s elite scorers; he’s one of its best all-around players.