by Adam Figman / portraits by JUCO

For most basketball players, a game-winning shot typically precedes a moment of immense joy. Forty-eight minutes of intense competition—and hours upon hours of laborious practice beforehand—have come down to a single jumper, and then that jumper finds the bottom of the net, and it was all worth it, and the genuine elation and joy that results is (and should be) palpable, unmistakable.

I noticed at some point during the past few months that Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard seems to react differently than most, though. After his last-second buckets, of which there have already been asmallhandful during his one-and-a-half years in the L, the Oakland native scrunches up his face as if he just smelled something horrible, stares daggers at nothing in particular, and juts his jaw a la late-career Kobe Bryant. Check out the below photo, snapped immediately after Lillard buried the New Orleans Hornets less than two months into his rookie campaign:

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Let’s use some top-secret Internet technology to get a bit closer.

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There it is. That look has fascinated me since Lillard first began draining clutch shots during the winter of 2012—not only that he has an amazing method of demonstrating all-out excitement, but that he completely skipped the requisite “Woooooo this is really happening!”-type emotion that most rookies exhibit after hitting their first huge shots and jumped directly to, “Yeah, I just did that”-styled confidence. Transitions are overrated, anyway.

When I sat down with Dame in late January, this subject was one of the first things we discussed. Here he is on the matter: “That’s the East Oakland in me. It’s like this kind of chip that you have on your shoulder that you carry with you, that underdog mentality. It’s always been where people didn’t believe in me or I didn’t have an opportunity, so I kind of have a me-against-the-world mentality. I feel like I still need to earn it. So when stuff like [game-winners] happens, that’s the expression of, Now what?”

A fun answer, especially because now, at the onset of the second week of February, 2014, we know exactly what “what” is: A starring role in the upcoming All-Star Weekend, during which the 23-year-old will be participating in the Rising Stars Challenge, the Skills Challenge, the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest, the Three-Point Shootout and the actual All-Star Game—the first player to ever hit all five events. He also remains the starting point guard of the feisty Portland Trail Blazers, a group off to an excellent 36-15 start and one that could absolutely (and somewhat shockingly) come out of the West this season. 

And, of course, that “what” includes the reason we’re here now: his first SLAM cover. Dynamic photography duo JUCO shot Dame on the adidas campus a few weeks ago, and along with attending the shoot, I spent a half a week in Portland, caught a pair of Blazers games and held a lengthy interview with Dame for the cover story. You’ll need to pick up the issue to read that piece in full (though it’ll creep online in a couple weeks), but here are some quotes from our conversation in the meantime:

On maintaining the hard-nosed edge he had when he first entered the League:

DL: Over the summer, I was scared. I woke up nervous a lot of times. In the morning, it’d be 9 o’clock, and I’d get up nervous, because I was so busy with stuff I had to do like Rookie of the Year appearances, and business stuff, that I didn’t have the time right away to start working out, and that’s all I was used to doing. So when I wasn’t able to do that I feared I wouldn’t be better than I was last year. So that type of edge, it’s not something that I force myself to think about, but it bothers me. Having that type of thought process and edge is what allows me to keep wanting to get better and keep expecting more. 

On how he matches up against the NBA’s best point guards:

DL: I think I’m up there. I think there are guys that are on a higher level of me based on their body of work, just how they see games—it slowed down for me from year one to two, so a guy in year five or six, it’s probably unbelievable for them. I think I’m at the top—not saying I’m the best, but I’m in the group of the better point guards in the League based off of what I bring to the table for my team every night. 

On which PGs he enjoys facing the most:

DL: Russell Westbrook. Chris Paul, too. Chris Paul, just because he’s the consensus best point guard in the League to a lot of people. But Russell Westbrook because he’s a killer. He’s always in attack mode­—he wants to outplay you. That matchup for me is like, if I can get the best of him, then I’m moving up. He’s in attack mode when he has the ball, and he’s gonna attack you on defense. He plays both sides, and he’s one of the guys I have respect for. That’s probably the matchup I look forward to the most. 

On his unrelenting will to keep getting better:

DL: You’ve just got to want to prove it. You’ve got to want to do it for the right reasons. I’m not here for the money or the fame or anything like that. I’m here to show who I am as a basketball player.

There’s plenty more in the story, including quotes from Dame’s father, teammates, coaches, and his trainer, Anthony Eggleton, who breaks down the awesomely bizarre “high-level martial arts” lessons he regularly instills in our cover star. (If you’re wondering how and why Dame, who’s averaging 19.0 ppg and 6.5 apg at the moment, is so good with the game on the line, some of that might explain it.)

Plus, we’ve got a bunch of non-Lillard reasons to pick up this issue, including great features on up-and-coming stars like Klay Thompson, Jeff Teague and Gordon Hayward, a look at the careers and current lives of ex-NBA greats Adrian Dantley and Marques Johnson, a candid conversation with the one and only Yao Ming, and lots more.

It’ll be available in New York City this week and on newsstands nationwide early next week. Read it with your best post-buzzer-beater expression on full display. Or don’t. Either way, enjoy!

#Damian Lillard SLAM Magazine Cover