“I’m a believer,” Trail Blazers rookie Damian Lillard says without pause, a few hours before he and his Portland teammates take care of the Dallas Mavericks in a mid-January Western Conference clash, keeping their Playoff aspirations alive for at least another night.
And why shouldn’t he be?
Weber State head coach Randy Rahe recalls a conversation he had with Lillard more than two years ago, a few days after his star point guard suffered a broken bone in his right foot in the second half of an overtime loss to Tulsa—an injury that would end his junior season just nine games in.
“I remember him coming into my office and sitting down. He had his boot on,” Rahe says. “I said, Well Damian, here’s what we gotta do, we have to take this time and we’ve gotta get better. You’ve got three, four months here while you’re healing to get better. He looked at me like, ‘That’s great, but Coach, I’ve got a boot on my foot. What am I gonna do?’”
It was perhaps the only fleeting flicker of doubt in his basketball career. And it didn’t last long. That serious an injury, which occurred a year after a sophomore season that saw him named Big Sky Conference MVP while creeping onto the NBA’s radar, might have been enough to crush a more feeble-minded player. But not Dame.
Unable to run, he hit the gym six or seven times a week to work on his upper body, watched every single game tape from his time at Weber State, even worked on his ballhandling and shooting from a stationary chair. By the time he was cleared to return to action, he made it count. “He attacked it like no other that summer,” says Rahe.
The rest is history: 24.5 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists per game in his final season at Weber State (enough to earn his second Conference Player of the Year award) and pre-Draft workouts so prolific that he shot up to No. 6 overall in the 2012 Draft, where the Blazers didn’t hesitate to make him a franchise cornerstone.
“I’m the type of person,” Lillard says, “that something could happen to me and it’ll happen to a whole bunch of other people, and they can fall off and not end up being what they wanted to become, and I’m going to always feel like I’m going to be the first one to do it.”
Because if falling off was an option for Lillard, it would have happened already. Coming up in Oakland, CA, he transferred high schools twice and, as only a two-star recruit, was barely noticed by traditional NCAA powers. Add that kind of baggage to his devastating, ill-timed injury? Plenty of once-promising players have given up off less. Not Dame.
“All those things happened, and they happened for a reason. They all made me hungrier. They all made me want it more,” says Dame. “If I wasn’t going to make it to the NBA, it wasn’t going to be because of those things. It was going to be because I didn’t do what I needed to do. I just kept grinding, stayed focused, and I was able to get here.”
Here is the present, where since arriving in the Pacific Northwest, Lillard has started every game of the ’12-13 season for the Blazers at point guard and helped guide them, surprisingly, into the Playoff picture. Here, he’s the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year thanks to gaudy numbers for a first-year man and poise that belies his age.
Lillard is No. 1 among rookies in scoring (18.9 ppg), assists (6.4 apg) and minutes (38.5 mpg). And through February, he’s swept the Western Conference Rookie of the Month awards this season. Conservatively, he’s the third-best player on the Blazers, with respects to LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum. Offensively, he’s the most important—Portland’s Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions) is 11.2 points higher with Lillard on the court versus when he’s on the bench, easily the biggest on/off court difference on the team.
And perhaps most telling, his peers have taken notice. LeBron James—whom Lillard said was his favorite player coming into the L—is already endorsing his ROY campaign, as are others.
“He can play,” says Celtics guard Jordan Crawford, who compares Lillard to Sixers All-Star point man Jrue Holiday. “He’s aggressive, that’s what I like about him. I think the more he plays, the easier it’s going to be for him, because he’s going to learn.”
Accolades aside, Lillard won’t deny he has plenty left to absorb. He went through the same education by fire in college, when his coaches had to plead with him to be less unselfish and look to score more often.
“He didn’t set the world on fire right away,” says Rahe. “Early on, as a freshman, when he started playing quite a bit and started for us, I had to beg him to shoot the ball. He played the point, and he never wanted to be known as a ballhog, or ‘I’m looking for my own.’”
That’s right—despite finishing 2012 as the second-leading scorer in Division I ball and posting 18-plus ppg so far as a pro, Dame’s instincts as a facilitator haven’t faded. Much like Clippers point god Chris Paul, Lillard likes to get his teammates involved early, then pick and choose his spots to score in crunch time. To that end, he studies tape closely with Blazers assistant coach David Vanterpool, a basketball nomad who played briefly with Washington in 2001 and is now Lillard’s de facto mentor.
But his schooling at the NBA level extends even beyond Xs and Os. Like in just his 10th game, a 102-84 home win over the Bulls, when Dame found himself ahead of the pack with time winding down. Instinctively, he threw down a dunk rather than dribble the clock out. Chicago didn’t take well to the perceived affront, and several players gave a wide-eyed Lillard an earful during the post-game exchange. Looking back, Lillard calls that game “a learning experience,” and says it’s not in his nature to break the League’s unwritten rules. “It was kind of weird, because I’m not a guy that shows off or taunts people.”
Nah, his game can embarrass the competition enough. Even as teams have begun to pick him up full court and trap or show hard on every pick and roll, Lillard has adapted, showing off advanced decision-making and composure. His ever-cool demeanor is rare for a rookie PG, but he says that unflappable nature was instilled in him even as a pee-wee player.
“I think it just comes from being confident,” Lillard says. “My family’s always put that confidence in me to believe in myself and never be scared. Don’t back down from anything. At the end of the day, it’s just a basketball game. I love the game to death, but the worst thing that’s going to happen is we lose. Or the worst thing that’s going to happen is I miss a shot. There’s going to be another game. I’m going to see tomorrow. I don’t put too much pressure on myself. I just play the game.”
On January 11, when the Blazers traveled to Golden State’s Oracle Arena to take on the Warriors in Oakland, “family” and “pressure” aligned more literally than they have at any point in his rookie campaign.
Lillard graduated from Oakland High, grew up idolizing Oakland ballers like Gary Payton and was an unwavering fan of the late-’90s Warriors. He rattles off names like Antawn Jamison, Chris Mills, Tony Farmer, Mookie Blaylock, Mike Dunleavy, Jason Richardson, Gilbert Arenas and John Starks—who says he loves Lillard’s “old school” game—as if he were reading Golden State’s Wikipedia page.
His first professional game in his hometown would have been special no matter how well he played, since it would come in front of so many familiar faces, in an arena so close to his heart. Rather than press or play out of control (which no one would have faulted him for), all Dame did that night was score a career-high 37 points, including 7-12 shooting from three-point range. But PDX fell short in a 103-96 loss, which is the first thing Lillard mentions about that night.
“It would have been better if we’d have won the game,” he starts. “Everybody wants to play in the NBA that plays basketball, and for me to get to lay that dream out and get to play in front of my home city, it was nothing more exciting, no greater feeling. And then for me to go out and have a career-high, it played out perfectly.”
“Except we lost the game,” he says again, more emphatically, the pain of that pesky asterisk forever attached to his homecoming.
Not that the noted gym rat needs any more motivation. “Damian, with him, if he doesn’t feel like he’s doing something to get better every day, it drives him crazy,” says Rahe, who downplays any credit Lillard has paid the WSU staff for his meteoric rise to ROY levels. Instead, Rahe uses the phrase “self-made” over and over, even marveling himself at what Dame’s done given his humble beginnings.
Less than a season into his pro career, Lillard says he’s adjusted to those “Wow, I’m in the NBA” moments. When he steps on the hardwood, he’s at home. But off it, he still has to do the occasional double take—both in private and on the streets of Portland.
“It’s just certain things like, when I’ll turn on ESPN and they’ll talk about me during our game highlights and stuff like that where I’ll just be like, Man, it’s really real,” he says. “People recognize me. In college people would recognize me, but it wasn’t a big deal. Now when people recognize me, they’re like shocked to see me…It’s kind of funny to me to see people react that way, because in my head, I’m just regular old D. But to them, I’m an NBA player—I’m something bigger to them.”
Damian Lillard is a believer. The people of Portland are believers. Watch him play, and you will be, too.