Damian Lillard isn’t exactly new to the spotlight. After a stellar collegiate career for the Weber State Wildcats, he was drafted sixth overall in 2012. Lillard was noticed immediately, scoring 19 points per game as a starter for the Blazers and winning Rookie of the Year. Still, he hasn’t been considered the top talent in Portland until this offseason when LaMarcus Aldridge left for the Spurs. For the first time in his professional life, Lillard is hoisting the most shots on his team. That hasn’t stopped him from scoring proficiently or acting as floor general. It’s hard to believe that he has also racked up 7 assists per contest. Damian Lillard’s ruthless offensive approach is one of my favorite things about the game of basketball right now.
He may have played for a mid-major in Utah, but Lillard caught my eye even during his college days. The native of Oakland, California put up 27 points against Montana State late in his freshman year. After that, he rarely missed double digits the rest of his time at Weber State. He scored 19.9 as a sophomore before an injury-shortened junior campaign. Lillard came back even stronger in his final season of 2011-12, ranking second in Division I with 24.5 points per game to go with 4 assists. The guard scored 35 or more five times during that year, including 41 in a double-overtime win against San Jose State. As you’d expect, Lillard came up big in the final minute, converting a three-point play with 17 seconds left and getting a critical steal before time expired.
Lillard was up to his usual jaw-dropping tricks during a recent game on November 24 against the Bulls. During the first quarter, he eluded Derrick Rose before spinning around help defender Tony Snell for the layup and getting fouled in the process. In the second quarter, a quick head fake was all it took for Lillard to feed Allen Crabbe for the open three. He turned more heads in the third with a lob to Noah Vonleh in transition. In the final frame, he used his spin move again against a helpless Rose to set up an easy bucket. By the end of the night, Lillard had come close to a triple-double: 19 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists.
While losing Aldridge in free agency was a blow to the Blazers, that has helped create a more exciting offensive style. Instead of constantly dumping the ball into the post for isolation sets, Lillard has been able to spread touches around. Fellow guard C.J. McCollum has benefited from the new scheme, nearly tripling his scoring average to 20 per game. This is partly a product of a major increase in playing time, but his field goal percentage has also risen as a result of Portland’s better ball movement. Forwards Meyers Leonard and Al-Farouq Aminu have also enjoyed what would be career-best scoring averages so far. Even the three-point specialist Crabbe has seen a 7% increase in field-goal percentage compared to his unspectacular 2014-15. Center Mason Plumlee has benefited from the most Lillard assists, but he doesn’t take nearly as many shots as Aldridge had.
Lillard may play the point guard role, but his 24.4 points per game put him in the league’s top ten among all players. He gets to the foul line often, where he has converted 86% of his free throws. It helps that he can contort his body in surprising ways, hitting a layup in traffic with a motion akin to a submarine-style baseball pitcher. He can even triple pump-fake defenders into clearing out of the way before swishing a jumper. A 41.9% field-goal percentage might not appear especially impressive, but it’s mitigated by his three-point shooting. After all, he makes three out of eight attempts in a typical matchup. Lillard is especially deadly because he has polished the step-back, moving behind the arc from deep two-point range in a flash. He’s seventh in Player Efficiency Rating at point guard, a mildly competitive position also played by guys named Curry, Westbrook, and Paul.
Lillard is obviously skilled, and he has the will to excel over a long season. Coach Terry Stotts remarked:
“Damian is going to be a team guy. He wants to win, he wants to do what’s best for the team and his teammates.”
Whether he drills a three-pointer or makes a bounce pass to a teammate rolling to the hoop, it’s clear that Lillard believes in that purpose. I have seen him beat two converging defenders by dribbling straight through them. His 4.6 rebounds per game are proof that he’ll sometimes crash the offensive glass when bigger men lose track of the ball. In scout’s terms, Lillard has a great motor. That’s something Portland fans have come to appreciate even more over the past two months.
photo via llananba