Damian Lillard, as stature grows, refuses to become content

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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:

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

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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.”

Patrick Beverley reportedly gloated to LeBron James about Kawhi Leonard signing

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The NBA has decided to change how they regulate tampering. Whether those harsher rules will lead to real change or simply to different circumvention is still yet to be seen.

Meanwhile, we have heard all the stories about how the Los Angeles Clippers landed both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Leonard was of course a major Los Angeles Lakers target, and it was disappointing for those in Lakerland that they didn’t land him.

Of course, Clippers guard Patrick Beverley was probably pretty happy about how things went, and now we have a story to back that up.

Speaking on Adrian Wojnarowski’s podcast this week, Brian Windhorst relate a story that he heard about Beverly celebrating around LeBron James after his team snagged Leonard.

As Windhorst tells the story, there were several groups of NBA players in private dining rooms at a restaurant in Las Vegas during summer league. Paul George was in one room, and James was in another. After hearing the news that the Clippers landed Leonard, Beverley walked into several rooms containing NBA players to gloat.

Via Woj Pod:

And so the deal actually gets done. [Adrian Wojnarowski reports] that Kawhi has not only agreed to sign with the Clippers, but the Clippers are trading half their future for Paul George, it’s a stunning development. And it all goes down while those players are at the same restaurant in various private rooms.

The story that I heard was that Patrick was making a beeline down the hallway of private rooms — sticking his head into all the rooms gloating about the Clippers’ giant haul — including into LeBron’s room.

This feels like it’s right on brand for Beverley.

Now the Clippers will need to prove they’re better than the Lakers on the court (and not just on paper).

Collin Sexton says he’s going to wear fan-designed shoes this season

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Cleveland Cavaliers second-year point guard Collin Sexton is already a fan-favorite in northeastern Ohio. This year, it appears that Sexton is trying to deepen that connection.

In a message posted to Twitter on Sunday, Sexton reached out to his followers to design a new set of shoes for him this year. The Cavaliers sophomore said that he will take the top five designs that fans submit and then wear them throughout the course of the upcoming 2019-20 NBA season.

Via Twitter:

This is a pretty cool idea, and a great way to have a direct link between fans and players. Social media is in an era of extreme personal branding, and even if this is a thinly-veiled Nike marketing thing, it at least has a twinge of genuineness to it.

The only thing left now is to see what designs people submit, and whether Sexton’s taste is any good.

James Harden plays in Rico Hines games at UCLA and destroys people

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Elite NBA defenders, with a team and a game plan behind them, can’t slow down James Harden.

So imagine what happens when he shows up for an open run.

One spot a lot of NBA players head in the summer to get some games in is Rico Hines’ games at UCLA. Harden showed up and, well, you know what comes next. Via Ball is Life.

The man is so smooth, so under control, and just able to get buckets however he wants. It’s just fun to watch. Unless you’re an opposing coach.

Could Kevin Durant return from torn Achilles, play for Nets this season? Maybe…

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Every case is different, but many players return from a torn Achilles in about nine to 10 months. Kobe Bryant pushed and did it in eight. Other players will take a full year.

If Kevin Durant returned in nine months it would be March, enough time to get in game shape and be ready for the Nets’ playoff run.

There’s a growing sense from teams we could see just that scenario, and Spencer Dinwiddie talked about it with Brian Lewis of the New York Post.

Though Nets GM Sean Marks refused to rule Durant out for the season, the feeling within the league is trending toward him potentially playing this season.

“I know KD is taking the rehab process ultra-serious. He wants to come back as soon as it’s appropriate, and healthy and the right decision for him, and then also subsequently that would also be the right decision for,” said Dinwiddie, who points out that even a slightly-diminished Durant could still be a superstar.

“The beautiful part about this is, the man is 7-foot and one of the best shooters of all time. At worst you get Dirk [Nowitzki], and Dirk was a monster. So we’re ready for him to come back whenever he wants to and whenever he’s ready to do so, and we know that he’s going to be a phenomenal major piece of our roster.”

Durant is an intense competitor who wants to get back on the court. He pushed to get back from a calf injury and play in the NBA Finals only to suffer the Achilles tear. He’s smart enough to be sure he’s all the way back before he steps on the court, if that means he sits out a full season so be it. However, he absolutely could return this season.

If he’s back, the Nets go from interesting team to potential threat to the Bucks and Sixers at the top of the conference. Durant was the best player in the world the past couple of years and he could return to that status quickly, and lift Brooklyn up with him.