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.”

Clippers guard Landry Shamet tests positive for coronavirus

Landry Shamet coronavirus
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Clippers’ guard Landry Shamet just a few days ago talking to the media: “There’s no option with no risk at this point.”

Saturday we learned that Shamet has tested positive for the coronavirus. Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the news.

This comes a couple of days after a positive test for one member of the Clippers traveling party caused the team to shut down its training facility (that may have been Shamet, it may not have been, the Clippers are not saying).

Shamet has to go through a 14-day quarantine and two negative tests 24 hours apart before he can join his teammates in Orlando, which he still plans to do. If there are no setbacks, he will be in Orlando and cleared well before the Clippers take on the Lakers on opening night.

The second-year shooting guard is an important role player for the Clippers, scoring 9.7 points per game but shooting 39.2% from three — he is critical to their floor spacing in certain lineups. He is exactly the kind of player that will need to have a couple of big playoff games — when defenses collapse on Kawhi Leonard and Paul George — if Los Angeles is going to be a threat to win it all. As they believe they are.

Utah’s Rudy Gobert ‘in a good place,’ trying to move forward

Rudy Gobert
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There were the tweets from strangers.

“I hate you.”

“You ruined the whole world.”

“You deserve it.”

And there was the scorn from inside his own locker room, the presumption that he infected a teammate with coronavirus, the suggestion that his recklessness somehow caused the entire sporting world to come to an absolute standstill.

Utah center Rudy Gobert is still standing tall, after all that and more.

Plenty of eyes will be on Gobert when the NBA season, the one that shut down March 11 when he became the first player in the league to be diagnosed with the coronavirus, takes a giant step toward returning by having teams gather at the Disney complex in Central Florida over the next few days. The Jazz will be a fascinating case study during this restart, particularly regarding whether or not Gobert and Donovan Mitchell — a fellow All-Star who was diagnosed with the virus shortly after the shutdown began and did not hide his anger with Gobert about it all — can coexist peacefully again.

“I’m happy now. I’m in a good place, you know,” Gobert told reporters Friday. “And I’m happy that I get the joy back from playing basketball with my team and the competitiveness is back. I’m ready to try to go out there and try to win the championship. That’s the goal. And to be honest, after everything we’ve been through as a team and as human beings, it would be a great comeback.”

Gobert answered questions for about 11 minutes. He talked about the relationship with Mitchell. (“It’s never going to be perfect,” he said, acknowledging strains that have been no secret.) He talked about the potential of signing a lucrative extension — he’s supermax-eligible — with the Jazz, which could happen before next season. (“I don’t plan on leaving right now,” he said.) He talked about his recovery from the virus, which is ongoing, at least in how his sense of smell hasn’t totally recovered. (“Smelling, I took that for granted too. It’s back now, it’s back at 80%, I’m not worried,” he said.)

He spoke softly, calmly, thoughtfully. And even though he is the two-time reigning NBA defensive player of the year, he didn’t swat any question away.

“Obviously, when you have the whole world judging you and threatening you or sending you a lot of negative energy and stuff like that, it’s something that I would say is not easy as a human being,” Gobert said. “But at the same time, people just judge you on the perception they have and the perception they get. Sometimes it can be one picture, one video, one interview, one action.”

In this case, that’s pretty much exactly what happened.

A picture, a video, an interview, an action. It was the start of the downfall.

It was the morning of March 9: Before leaving a media session at shoot-around in Salt Lake City on Monday in advance of a game against Detroit, Gobert touched all the tape recorders that were placed before him on a table, devices that reporters who cover the Jazz were using. He meant it as a joke. When he tested positive two days later, it was no laughing matter.

The Jazz were in Oklahoma City, just moments away from starting a game against the Thunder, when word came that Gobert tested positive. The game was called off. The season was suspended that same night.

Just like that, Gobert was a center of negative attention.

“First of all, you make sure he’s OK,” said Orlando guard Evan Fournier, a fellow French national-team player, who reached out often to check on Gobert. “You know, you call him and once we’re on the phone or just talking, text, whatever, you just ask him a few questions. How is he feeling, blah, blah, blah. And then once he starts to open up and say things about how he sees the whole situation, then you just try to give your best judgment to him. And you know, that’s what I did.”

Gobert immediately started trying to show remorse. He donated $200,000 to a fund established to help those who work part-time at Jazz games, people who lost income because contests were canceled. More money — about $310,000 — went to families affected by the pandemic in Utah and Oklahoma City, plus in his native France. He taped a public-service announcement for the league.

“I won’t be able to control everyone’s perception of me, but I can control my actions,” Gobert said. “I can control, you know, the things I do for the people around me, for the community, the things I do for my teammates on the court, off the court. All that stuff, I can control and that’s what really matters to me.”

For his part, Mitchell said the relationship with Gobert has improved.

“Right now, we’re good,” Mitchell said Thursday. “We’re going out there ready to hoop.”

The Jazz have secured a playoff berth. They’ll be without the injured Bojan Bogdanovic for the remainder of the season, yet still have enough depth to be considered a contender in the Western Conference.

And Gobert expects he and Mitchell, on the court anyway, will be fine.

“As long as we respect one another and we both share the same goals and we both do what’s best for the team, that’s what matters,” Gobert said. “And, you know, I think over the last few years that’s what we’ve been doing and that’s what we plan on continuing doing.”

Celtics’ Gordon Hayward may leave bubble in September for birth of child

Celtics' Gordon Hayward
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The Celtics’ Gordon Hayward has been at his wife’s side for the birth of their three children, he’s not going to miss the fourth — even if that means leaving the bubble.

Hayward’s wife Robyn is due with their fourth child in September — very possibly while the team is still playing — and he said in a conference call with reporters that he will leave the bubble to be with her. Via Tim Bontemps of ESPN:

“There’ll be a time if and when we’re down there and she’s going to have the baby, I’m for sure going to be with her,” Hayward said of his wife, Robyn. “We’ll have to cross that bridge when we get there…

“It’s a pretty easy decision for me on that,” Hayward said. “I’ve been at the birth of every one of my children, and I think there are more important things in life. So we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

“I know the NBA has a protocol for that type of thing, and hopefully I can do the quarantining and testing the appropriate amount of time and then be back with the boys.”

That protocol says that if Hayward notifies the team and league, is gone fewer than seven days, gets tested and is negative every day he is outside the bubble, then upon his return he will have a four-day quarantine (so long as he continues to have negative tests). This applies to all players who might need to leave the Walt Disney World campus for a family emergency or situation (Utah point guard Mike Conley‘s wife is due with their child in late August, for example).

If Hayward is gone longer or isn’t tested every day outside the bubble — or, if a player leaves the bubble without notifying teams — he has a 10-day quarantine upon his return.

The second round of the playoffs are set to begin Aug. 30 and will run as long as Sept. 13. The Eastern Conference Finals — which the Celtics have a good chance of making, but likely would need to beat out a strong Toronto squad — start Sept. 15 and run through the end of the month.

Hayward will be missed, and it’s not just his 17.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, or 4.1 assists per game, or the fact he shot 39.2% from three and is an important part of the Celtics’ floor spacing. It’s also that Brad Stevens uses Hayward in versatile lineups — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Hayward make a very switchable foursome — that can both defend and difficult for opponents to stop. Boston loses some of that versatility without him, Semi Ojeleye is not going to be able to give the Celtics the same quality minutes.

 

NBA releases scrimmage schedule for restart, games tip-off July 22

NBA scrimmage schedule
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We are 18 days away from NBA basketball.

Well, NBA scrimmages at least. On the Fourth of July, the NBA released the schedule of scrimmage games for teams, which begin July 22 and run for six days, leading up to the start of the season July 30.

Here is the full schedule, with each team having three scrimmage games, all against teams from the other conference or unlikely playoff matchups.

The details on the broadcasts of the NBA scrimmage schedule of games have not been released, but it’s safe to expect they will be available on the team’s regional networks at the least (with maybe a few games picked up nationally).

Teams arrive at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at the Walt Disney World resort in Orlando starting next week. After players and team staff go through a 24-48 quarantine period (with two negative tests 24 hours apart), they will begin full team practices in the run-up to these scrimmages, and eventually the eight “seeding” games, which count as regular-season games.

Those seeding games start July 30 with a TNT double-header of Utah vs. New Orleans followed by the battle of Los Angeles, the Lakers vs. the Clippers (the top two seeds in the West heading into these games).