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OAKLAND, Calif. – LaMarcus Aldridge was the last Portland Trail Blazers player to leave the floor after the team's tough win over the Golden State Warriors last week. He arrived at the locker room to find two of his teammates – Maurice Williams and Wesley Matthews, both of whom had been ejected for a skirmish with the Warriors – waiting outside to congratulate him for the victory.
"We did this for ya'll," Aldridge told them.
In previous seasons, Aldridge might not have said anything to his teammates. Leadership was rarely a priority for him. This season, he's made it one, and the Trail Blazers credit it as one of the reasons for their surprisingly strong start.
"Two years ago, I forced it. Last year, I forced it," Aldridge said. "But now it's become more natural. This year I've talked more than I have in [any] year."
Aldridge has kept to himself for years, relying on a tight circle that includes only his mother, brother and Dallas Seagoville High School coach Robert Allen. Even before he joined the NBA, Aldridge trusted few people, believing too many had an angle to work with him.
"AAU basketball and college was shaky," Aldridge said. "You really learn there was not a lot of trustworthy people out there. Everyone has a motive. Coming from being poor and not having much, everybody thinks they can latch on to you and try to get some money.
"Everyone wants to give you things early, offer you things hoping you take it, so when you make it, they can be there with you. I just learned that the process was so dirty it made me not trust anybody. I just saw how everyone you know could be about something negative."
Aldridge's mistrust also caused him to be a loner among his Blazers teammates. The departures of Brandon Roy and Greg Oden after significant knee injuries eventually left Aldridge as the face of the franchise. Even so, Aldridge didn't exactly embrace a leadership role.
"I just don't open up to anybody," Aldridge said. "There are only certain people I do share things with."
Aldridge told Yahoo Sports in the offseason that he was frustrated with not making the playoffs last season, but hadn't reached the point where he wanted a trade. He trusted Blazers general manager Neil Olshey to put the needed players around him to win soon.
"I was a little disappointed," Aldridge said. "Probably a little overly emotional about it. But everything is looking good."
To a core that included Aldridge, 2013 NBA Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard, forward Nicolas Batum and Wesley, the Blazers added center Robin Lopez, forward Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson, rookie C.J. McCollum (who has yet to play due to a foot injury) and veteran guards Williams and Earl Watson.
With the roster changes, Aldridge decided it was also time for him to step up as a vocal leader for the Blazers. Williams and Watson encouraged Aldridge. Batum said he noticed a difference at the beginning of training camp from "a more mature" Aldridge.
"Since Day One in training camp he's been more vocal," Batum said. "He's the captain of the team. He knows what he has to do to bring this team back to the playoffs. He is more vocal in practice and off the court.
"He grew up. He learned from his mistakes."
Said Lillard: "He's speaking up a lot more. …He wasn't like that when I got here."
Before the season began, Aldridge said the Blazers would make the postseason as the seventh seed. So far, it looks like he underestimated Portland – the Trail Blazers have the Western Conference's second-best record after an 11-game winning streak that just ended. Aldridge has played a big role in Portland's rise, averaging career-highs of 22.1 points and 9.6 rebounds.
"He has gotten off to a great start and he's remarkably consistent," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "I know his teammates know how important he is. He is the foundation of everything. His presence on the court affects everybody and how well they play on the court."
And for all of his frustration in the offseason, Aldridge now sees a brighter future for the Blazers.
"If we keep doing what we're doing, playing defense and playing very unselfishly," Aldridge said, "…anything is possible."