Damian Lillard, as stature grows, refuses to become content


BOSTON – Damian Lillard watched in awe as his veteran teammates shared kind words with opponents after each game.

As a rookie, Lillard didn’t know what to make of the friendliness that crossed team lines. He sure didn’t take that approach at Weber State.

“I played against the same guys three years in a row, and I wouldn’t know them at all,” Lillard said. “I wouldn’t speak to them. It was kind of like I had animosity toward them for no reason, because they were the competition.”

Now, he appreciatively describes what he calls the “brotherhood” among NBA players, and he wishes opponents well after games just like everyone else. His old tweets directed at LeBron James and his recent apology illustrate how he felt and now feels about letting his guard down with other players. But more than liking or disliking the camaraderie, Lillard recognizes it as a reality of the league.

Another thing Lillard recognizes: He can’t get too comfortable in his place.

Lillard is one of the NBA’s top point guards, a Rookie of the Year and the first member of his draft class to make an All-Star game. He’s already signed an endorsement deal with adidas reportedly worth more than $100 million. And with a third-team All-NBA selection last season, Lillard is halfway to triggering the Derrick Rose rule and becoming eligible next summer for a contract extension, based on salary-cap projections, that could pay more than $140 million over five years.

Despite all his accolades and wealth, Lillard refuses to rest on his laurels.

“Understanding why you are who you are,” Lillard said. “I know didn’t come here because I was a big-time recruit or nothing. I had to work my ass off to make it happen. Now that I made it, that doesn’t change. You have to stick to what gave you the opportunity.”

Lillard is not the first player to jump from the Big Sky Conference to the NBA’s first round. Rodney Stuckey did at a few years prior, but he ended up at Eastern Washington due only to academic issues. Major teams were recruiting him. Conversely, Lillard was just deemed not worthy by bigger programs coming out of high school. Another major difference: Stuckey played just two college seasons before turning pro, and Lillard played four.

Before the 2012 draft, Lillard encountered many questions about his NBA potential. Specifically, scouts honed in on his competition level and age. Was Lillard truly great, or did he look great just because he was better and older than his opponents?

As much as it’d be convenient to dismiss the concerns as unfair now that Lillard is succeeding in the NBA, they were quite legitimate.

Throughout his entire college career, Lillard faced just seven future NBA draft picks (Jimmer Fredette, Kenneth Faried, Chase Budinger, Carrick Felix, Lance Stephenson, Allen Crabbe and Orlando Johnson). Anyone playing Kentucky this season might trump that number in a single night.

The age issue was probably even more troubling. Lillard, who turned 22 before his rookie year, was the oldest player drafted in the 2012 lottery. In the last 10 years, the only players as old as Lillard drafted so high were Hasheem Thabeet, Wesley Johnson, Shelden Williams, Ekpe Udoh and Yi Jianlian – quite the collection of busts.

Even Lillard acknowledges the age concerns were fair. He brings up Anthony Davis, who still isn’t as old as Lillard was when drafted. Though Lillard entered the NBA more ready than Davis and beat the New Orleans forward for Rookie of the Year, Davis now looks like MVP. On the other end of the spectrum, Lillard has noticed other older players who’ve entered the league since him.

“They just are what they’re going to be,” Lillard said. “They’re not going to improve. If he’s a shooter, he’s going to be a shooter. … There’s not much room for growth.”

Lillard vowed he wouldn’t fall into that trap, no matter how much his advanced age predisposed him to leveling off.

“I’m a worker,” Lillard said. “I always find ways to improve, to better myself. I’m not afraid to challenge myself.”

This offseason, his biggest offseason priority was conditioning. He’s eating better – he really misses Benihana – and looking better on the court. His averages this year (20.2 points and 6.7 assists per game) are pretty similar to last year (20.7 and 5.6), but he’s playing less and and his usage is down, making him much more efficient. He’s shooting 46 percent from the field and, though it should regress to the mean over a larger sample, 47 percent from beyond the arc. He’s also defending better than ever.

All told, Lillard has a PER of 23.3, up from 18.6 last year and up from 16.4 the year before.

Contrary to perception, that steady improvement is not the norm for players who enter the league playing as well as Lillard. Here’s how the last five Rookie of the Years progressed in their first three seasons:


To look at it another way, here are their PERs as a percentage of their rook-year PER:


For all the worry Lillard’s age left him too little untapped potential to justify going high in the draft, he’s the one who keeps improving year after year.

Soon enough, Lillard will truly run out of room to keep growing at this rate. He keeps pushing back that date, but it will happen. Even his coach understands that.

“I don’t know about making big leaps,” Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “His first two years were pretty remarkable, and if you look at other players that have done what he’s done, they do improve, but I don’t think it’s major jumps.”


Beyond defense, one key area of growth for Lillard has been finishing at the rim. He’s making 60.0 percent of his shots at the rim, up from 49.9 last season. Over the summer, he worked specifically on driving and making layups as someone hit him with pads.

He still runs into trouble when he has to twist and bend in the paint, as he’s not a great acrobatic finisher. But more often, Lillard has the strength and balance to stand tall amid contact.

Lillard, on and off the court, is an NBA star.

He always believed he’d get here, and after a breakout sophomore season at Weber State, he thought others would notice too. Then he injured his foot, causing him to miss most of his junior year. He knew his already-slim chance at turning pro had just narrowed. So, he dug in deeper for his fourth college season.

“I just got a little hungrier,” Lillard said. “I knew it was going to be a little bit harder. So, I worked a little bit harder.”

Lillard has made it. He’s picking up the NBA’s customs and rituals. At this point, little on the surface separates the small-school success from his major-program peers.

But Lillard still has the same competitive drive that got him out of Oakland and out of Ogden, Utah. He calls last season’s Trail Blazers-Rockets series, which he ended with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, the favorite part of his NBA career so far.


Lillard spent most of the series matched up with Houston point guard Patrick Beverley with whom he shares a historya mutual appreciation, if you will.  For Lillard, the series was a throwback to his college approach.

“There was a little bit of anger in those games,” Lillard said.

Though he appreciated that playoff intensity, Lillard can’t always be driven by anger. Not anymore. But, make no mistake, he still remains driven – and that’s why, against such steep odds, he continues to improve even as he climbs higher and higher into the NBA hierarchy.

“Nobody can perfect the game, so that’s the beauty of it, that you’ve got to keep working, try to perfect something that you can’t perfect,” Lillard said. “So, that’s fun.”

Report: Nets might trade Andrei Kirilenko to Jazz


Andrei Kirilenko left the Nets for the weekend, and Lionel Hollins was unsure whether the forward would return.

If that sounded ominous, it was.

Brooklyn is reportedly talking Kirilenko trade with the 76ers – but don’t assume Kirilenko will wind up in Philadelphia (even if it’s long enough only to get waived).

Marc Stein of ESPN:

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Just $250,000 of Toure’ Murry’s $1 million salary is guaranteed, and Jeremy Evans makes $1,794,871. By dealing Kirilenko’s $3,326,235 salary, Brooklyn would not only save the difference in player salary, it’d also trim its sizable luxury-tax bill.

With a full roster, the Nets would have to trade another player to make the deal work. They can’t simultaneously trade for and waive Murry and/or Evans to get under the limit.

Unless that other player in the deal is appealing or Brooklyn adds a draft pick, I’m not sure why Utah would make this trade, though.

Do the 5-9 Jazz believe they can contend for the playoffs with the boost Kirilenko – who fell out of Brooklyn’s rotation – would provide? Do they trust the veteran leadership of someone who, rightly or wrongly, has seemingly quit on his team?

It’d be cool from a sentimental standpoint to see Kirilenko back in Utah, where he spent his best seasons. But without other details, I don’t see why this trade makes much sense for the Jazz.

If you’re in Chicago and a Comcast subscriber, you can stream tonight’s Bulls-Jazz game on any device, just follow this link.

Eric Gordon leaves Pelicans game with a separated shoulder


Already missing starting center Omer Asik, the New Orleans Pelicans suffered another injury setback Saturday night when Eric Gordon after the starting shooting guard left the Pelicans’ 106-94 win over the Utah Jazz. Gordon suffered a separated shoulder, according to a press release from the team:

With 4:35 remaining in the second quarter Saturday, New Orleans Pelicans guard Eric Gordon’s arms got tangled up with Alec Burks while Gordon was defending Burks, resulting in a left shoulder subluxation (separate shoulder). Gordon headed to the locker room and will not return to Saturday’s game. Although initially it appeared as though Gordon may have been hurt as it fell near the sideline and into the EnergySolutions Arena stands, the contact took place on the wing as Gordon and Burks locked up with each other.

It’s unclear what Gordon’s timetable is for a return, but shoulder separations can keep players out for several weeks. Clippers star Chris Paul had one in January and missed 18 games last season because of it. The Pelicans may be without Gordon for a while.

After a horrendous start to the season, Gordon has been playing better lately, scoring 8 points on 4-of-7 shooting at the time of the injury. The Pelicans had better hope Austin Rivers is ready to step into a starting job while Gordon is out.

Anthony Davis goes off for 43 points (VIDEO)



There was nothing the Utah Jazz could do because we know Anthony Davis can finish at the rim but when he is 6-of-9 from the midrange, you are doomed. He can put it on the floor and attack or just knock it down over you. Check out his shot chart from Saturday night.


Davis finished with 43 points on 23 shots, plus had 14 rebounds on the night. The Pelicans beat the Jazz 106-94, despite Gordon Hayward’s 31 points.

Anthony Davis. Unstoppable.

PBT’s Tuesday Night NBA Winners/Losers: Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins go toe-to-toe


Every night the NBA can be a cold hard reality — there are winners, there are losers. It’s the nature of the game. We know you are busy and can’t keep up with every game, so we’re here to bring you the best and worst of the NBA each week night. Here’s what you missed while watching college basketball.

source:  Any star big man who didn’t start the Pelicans-Kings game

How is the NBA going to keep up with Anthony Davis (28 points, nine rebounds, three blocks, two steals) and DeMarcus Cousins (24 points, 17 rebounds, three assists, two blocks) in coming years? These two are just so talented and so young. Cousins is just 24, and Davis is 21.

They’re setting the bar extremely high for everyone else, even the league’s best big men. Anyone who watched New Orleans beat Sacramento tonight and isn’t excited for the future of Davis and Cousins must have to play against them.

source:  Kobe assists

The Lakers finally found a winning play.

Four of the Lakers final five baskets in their victory over Atlanta came on second-chance opportunities, the Lakers scoring against defenses that had been tilted to cover the shooter. That’s principle Kirk Goldsberry of Grantland described, crediting the shooter who missed with a “Kobe assist.”

The play is named after Kobe Bryant for a reason, as tonight showed. Finally, the Lakers are taking advantage of all those Kobe misses.

source:  Nick Young

In the most literal sense, Young is a winner, undefeated playing for the NBA’s worst team West of Philadelphia. Young scored 17 points on 10 shots in his season debut.

The Lakers are 1-0 with him and 1-9 without him. Coincidence? You tell me.

source:  Serge Ibaka

Ibaka shot 2-for-13 in the Thunder’s 17-point loss to the Jazz, and he’s feeling the burden of Kevin Durant’s and Russell Westbrook’s absences.

In his last three games, Ibaka has shot 15-for-46, and he’s gone four games without getting to the free-throw line. The jumpers Ibaka drained last season are more closely guarded, and he’s not getting the easy looks to get into rhythm.

source:  Alec Burks

Scoring 20 points on eight shots would have been impressive enough for Burks. But he also tracked down 14 rebounds,the most by a guard since Evan Turner in March 2012.

Oklahoma City helped by missing plenty of shots, but still, that’s impressive hustle from Burks.

source:  Jason Kidd

The Milwaukee coach is leading a balanced attack – seven Bucks scored in double figures in their victory over the Knicks – and winning with his young team. While most thought the Bucks would need time to grow, Kidd has them competing right now.

They even have a winning record, a rarity for them the last couple years.