SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Damian Lillard was relaxing in his hotel room early Sunday evening when he got a call from his mom asking when he was leaving for a team dinner. The Portland Trail Blazers' rookie point guard laughed a little before explaining that it wasn't like his Weber State days anymore as NBA players are on their own for meals.
Gina Johnson plays the role of Lillard's personal manager, chef, housekeeper, voice of reason and more while living with her son during his rookie year in Portland. Her mission: To allow her son to concentrate solely on his NBA Rookie of the Year potential. Meanwhile, she'll take care of everything else.
"I wash his clothes. I cook his food. I handle whatever deals he needs to handle," Johnson said. "Anything. Everything. He doesn't do anything but go to practice. That's all he does. That's it."
Considering Lillard's rise from late first-round prospect a year ago to the Blazers' point guard of the future as the sixth overall pick of last summer's NBA draft, it's understandable why his mother is protective and her 22-year-old son wants her by his side.
It's common for an NBA rookie's mom or close family member to live with him his first season. Such moves are typically reserved for players drafted after going pro following one or two years of college, not after four years away at school. But Lillard's agent, Aaron Goodwin, suggested that Johnson move in the first season to aid her son's NBA transition.
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Lillard called it an easy decision and was flattered his mother and 15-year-old sister, Lanae Lillard, left Oakland, Calif., for him. Lillard's father, Houston, still lives in Oakland but is a strong part of his life as well.
As Lillard talked to the media after a 117-100 preseason loss to the Sacramento Kings on Monday, Johnson asked Blazers director of player programs Hersey Hawkins for information on a good handyman to fix things in the house.
"She's not treating me like a little kid," Lillard said. "But she speaks her mind to me about what she feels is right or wrong. She'll say, 'You need to get some rest. You got practice tomorrow. You got games. It's a long season.'
"I really take in the advice she gives me. It's helped me my whole life so I figured I should continue that."
The Blazers passed on drafting intriguing prospects from marquee schools as Harrison Barnes, Andre Drummond, Austin Rivers and Jeremy Lamb were still available.
"His quickness. His separation. His size. His ability to shoot the ball. His composure," Blazers general manager Neil Olshey said, ticking off Lillard's strengths. "The interesting thing about playing at a small school was he had to take so much ownership for wins and losses from the time he got there."
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Playing in the Big Sky Conference kept his game hidden nationally. But NBA scouts, particularly the Blazers, saw something special when the athletic 6-foot-3, 195-pounder averaged 24.5 points, five rebounds, four assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 88.7 percent from the free-throw line his senior year. And this is while being double and sometimes triple-teamed.
"People were probably looking at him a year ago as being drafted in the 20s and playing behind an All-Star point guard," Olshey said. "A high quality backup. I don't know if anyone knew at that time he had the ability to be a franchise point guard. Some of that is from the prejudice of playing at a small school."
After strong workouts and interviews, Lillard's stock skyrocketed and he became the top rated point guard in the draft. Blazers owner Paul Allen and Olshey already dug his game. Olshey said that Lillard won Allen over during a pre-draft dinner in Portland after the rookie displayed maturity and personality.
Lillard showed a glimpse of star potential by earning Las Vegas Summer League co-Player of the Year honors. So far, Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge, the team's returning leading scorer and rebounder, is sold.
"He is very talented at scoring and passing. He has all the tools to be great," Aldridge said. "You got a lot of guys at his talent level that are arrogant and don't listen. But he listens and he's trying to grow."
Lillard always played with a chip on his shoulder at Weber State because of the need to prove himself after he wasn't recruited hard in high school. Now he has to prove he was worth a top-10 draft pick. He says the pressure isn't daunting since he wanted and expected it to be this way.
"I got to prove it now," Lillard said. "Now people are putting all these hopes in me like, 'Oh, he's going to do this.' ‘Oh, he's going to be Rookie of the Year. He's the franchise point guard.' Now I feel like I got to live up to it. I don't think it changes anything. I got to keep that same chip on my shoulder. I got to keep doing what I'm doing."
The reality of playing in the pros hit Lillard hard in his preseason debut on Oct. 10, when he faced Los Angeles Lakers point guard Steve Nash. Lillard admitted to being in awe of Nash at first when the two-time Most Valuable Player dribbled the ball up the floor against him the first time. But Lillard quickly settled down before earning 14 points and seven assists in 23 minutes. In the process, he learned from Nash the value of keeping your dribble alive, using your eyes to be a deceptive passer and finding players in the right spots.
"He walked out and shook my hand and I was like, 'Man, I'm about to play against Steve Nash,' " Lillard said. "We tipped it up and next thing I knew we were going against each other. But he's trying to beat me and I'm trying to beat him. [Butterflies] were gone right away."
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Lillard has averaged 16.3 points, five assists and 2.7 rebounds in 28 minutes per game in three preseason contests. Opposing NBA coaches are already giving him the respect.
"I told my players to try to rattle him early," Kings coach Keith Smart said. "It didn't work. He's going to be so good. He doesn't even break a sweat."
Said Los Angeles Lakers coach Mike Brown: "At draft time I still didn't know who he was. Now, he has a chance to be really good in this league. I'm impressed."
Lillard's contract could pay as much as $13.8 million over four years. He has signed a deal with Adidas. On the way are local car and cell phone deals.
"I didn't think it would happen like this," Johnson said. "This quick. This powerful. But I'm just happy it did."
Which is all the more the reason why mom is in Portland with him.
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