Portland Trail Blazers point guard has been named the NBA's 2012-13 Rookie of the Year, as announced late afternoon Wednesday in the least surprising news of the league's awards season so far. The sixth pick in last June's draft received all 121 first-place votes, becoming the first unanimous winner since Blake Griffin in the 2010-11 season. Lillard led all rookies in scoring average (19.0 ppg), assists (6.5 apg), and minutes (38.6 mpg, also second overall in the NBA) and established himself as the award's frontrunner in the earliest days of the season.
Lillard impressed throughout the season with his scoring ability and feel for the game, becoming one of the leaders of the Blazers along with All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge and a face of the franchise moving forward. Lillard helped to fill the backcourt gap left by the injury-plagued final seasons of Brandon Roy, the franchise's last Rookie of the Year in 2006-07, and he was one of the most watchable players in the league for non-partisans, as well.
Nevertheless, there's some question as to whether he deserved to be a unanimous winner. In separate pieces for ESPN.com, Ethan Sherwood Strauss and Henry Abbott argued that New Orleans Hornets power forward Anthony Davis, the top pick in the draft and a distant second in voting, deserved the award on the strengths of his stellar defense and better efficiency stats, even though he played in 18 fewer games and nearly 10 fewer minutes per game than Lillard. Despite playing significantly less time than Lillard, several stats show that Davis added more value to his team over the course of the season. And while efficiency shouldn't always stand in for value, these metrics do show that Davis likely didn't earn enough attention for his contributions this season.
On the other hand, impact can be measured in many different ways. Historically, the Rookie of Year hasn't been the "best" or "most productive" player, but the first-year pro who impresses himself upon the NBA most forcefully. In that sense, it's not hard to see how he won this award so easily. Over the season's six months, he was far and away the league's most talked about rookie, putting up highlights and gaudy numbers on a regular basis. He simply mattered to lots of people around the league.
To be sure, this designation does not mean that Lillard is and/or will go down as the best player in his draft class. While this award might cause observers to put Lillard in the same best-in-the-league conversation with young stars like Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, he is a different player in different circumstances. Lillard turns 23 on July 15 and is less than two years younger than both Rose and Westbrook, which suggests he has less room to grow physically and mentally than those players did at similar points in their careers. He can improve in many areas (and said in Wednesday's press conference that he plans to work hard at exactly that this summer), but basic math suggests that he's farther along in his development than other recent dynamic point guards.
I don't mean these comments to come across as criticism of Lillard — he's a great young player and a very deserving winner of this award. However, we owe him an honest appraisal of his NBA future, lest we place unrealistic expectations on him in future seasons. There are many, many reasons to think that this accomplishment is just the first in a list of great achievements in Lillard's career. Yet, with players this young, one great season confer greatness on an entire career. That Lillard seems to recognize this reality could be the best sign that this award is just the beginning.
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