When Damian Lillard rightfully earned his Rookie of the Year award last year, the general consensus amongst many NBA observers was that the Portland Trail Blazers guard was a pretty nice point man, but not a potential future franchise stud along the lines of Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, or Kyrie Irving. Because Lillard had stayed all four years at Weber State and was already working well at age 22, his ceiling didn’t seem to be as high.
For various reasons, all of them sad, Rose, Westbrook and Irving have fallen off this year. And though Lillard’s advanced stats at age 23 still fall short of where Derrick and Russell were at that age, that doesn’t mean Lillard hasn’t taken a fantastic leap in his second year. An unexpected leap, to some, as he enters his first All-Star Game on Sunday.
Actually, he’s entering the All-Star Just About Everything this weekend, as Lillard will take part in the Rookie/Sophomore Challenge, the Three-Point Shootout, the Skills Competition (which he won last year), the Dunk Contest, and Sunday’s main event. It would appear to be a tiring three-day weekend, purported to be spent over an All-Star “break,” but Lillard is scoffing at anyone who thinks he’ll come out of the other end dragging out of New Orleans.
“I don’t see it problem,” Lillard said Friday when speaking to the media. “It’s not like I’m playing 35 hard minutes like I do for the Trail Blazers. However many minutes I play in the All-Star Game, it’s not like we’re gonna be picking up full court, or playing ball screen defense in the Rising Stars tonight. The other competitions are maybe five minutes apiece. So it’s not much effort or exertion like that. It’s a friendly competition.”
That is true. Though we’re worried that the pervasive All-Star break (really, even calling it the “All-Star weekend” is getting it wrong) can creep into these players’ legs over time, the 23-year old with four years college experience and an 82-game run as a starter in his rookie year should be able to handle both New Orleans, and the rest of the season.
The comparison that keeps coming back to me, as I watch Damian Lillard work pick and rolls to perfection while shooting over 40 percent from long range this season, is that he’s basically a Mark Price that can dunk. He may not throw down at a rate that would make him a Slam Dunk Contest favorite, that’s probably the weakest chain in his three-day weekend link, but his advancing all-around game leaves him as a credible franchise-level guard and deserved All-Star. There’s still the question about how high his ceiling can go, but hey – we’ve got five or six years left to figure that out.
For now, handicapping Lillard’s chances for the All-Star events isn’t exactly a waste of one’s time. As a veteran, ball-dominating guard with All-Star skills, he has as good a chance as any to take the Rookie/Sophomore MVP. After all, Lillard was judged to be the best player of the NBA’s rookie class last year, a class that is far superior to the one working as novices in 2013-14. To most, Anthony Davis has surpassed Lillard as the best second-year player in the NBA … but Anthony’s not going to have the ball in his hands on Friday night, is he?
Lillard’s economy of movement, footwork, and shooting ability should help him in the Three-Point Shootout (again, he’s nailing 40 percent of his treys on the year) and especially in the Skills Challenge, where Damian is the returning champion. The Dunk Contest is a tougher sell, but because Lillard isn’t much of an in-game dunker, he still could very well pull some tricks out of his sleeve. Though we really hope the NBA doesn’t make them wear sleeved jerseys on Saturday.
The All-Star Game itself? It’s a crapshoot, always has been. It often comes down to who is the hottest that particular night at hitting flat-footed three-pointers, and Lillard may very well be the man for that.
He’s clearly the man moving forward for Portland, the lead guard on a team that has been ranked at or near the top on offense throughout the season. The Trail Blazers head into the break having lost five of their last eight, but they put the work in early and should have home court advantage when April rolls around. And though the team’s defense – currently ranked 23rd, lowest of any of the teams in Portland’s Western Conference bracket – continues to worry, coach Terry Stotts’ ability to think on the fly should suit the Blazers well in a seven game series.
Or two. Or three. Or more. Portland fans can dream, at least. They’ve been through too much, in the nearly 14 years since the Trail Blazers’ Game 7 meltdown in Los Angeles, and with Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge coming into their own, why not?
Kind of like … “participate in five All-Star events over three nights? Yeah, why not?”
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