Damian Lillard aims to become first rookie guard since Michael Jordan to make NBA All-Star team
Gary Payton, Jason Kidd, Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose didn't make the NBA All-Star Game as rookies. Kyrie Irving made a valiant effort last season, but also didn't get picked.
No guard, in fact, has been selected to play in the annual All-Star Game since Michael Jordan 28 years ago.
Damian Lillard, the Portland Trail Blazers' rookie point guard, would like to end that streak. He's made a growing case for himself this season, most recently with a 37-point performance against the Golden State Warriors.
"That says everything when Michael Jordan was the last guard to do it," said Lillard, who was born in 1990.
Lillard has already established himself as the likely choice for Rookie of the Year based on his work in the first half of the season. He's averaging 18.5 points, 6.5 assists and 3.5 rebounds. He has been named the Western Conference's Rookie of the Month for November and December and has eight games of at least 20 points and seven assists. He's also helped the Blazers, who finished 28-38 last season, to a winning record.
"Any time a rookie is playing at the level he is playing at with the poise that he is playing with, it's going to grab everyone's attention," Sacramento Kings coach Keith Smart said. "Are all the Western guards playing at a great level? Chris Paul is at a super level. [Russell] Westbrook is in there. All those guys keep moving up. Can [Lillard] possibly be there based on where he is right now? Maybe, maybe not.
"But his team is winning, he's playing at a great level, and everybody sees the poise as a young point guard and how he runs a basketball team. So it heightens people's attention and the possibility depending on how the votes go."
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Barring a late push by voters for Jeremy Lin to start in the All-Star Game in Houston, Paul and Bryant are expected to be the starting West guards after fan balloting ends Monday. The West coaches will later pick seven reserves. Westbrook, Houston's James Harden and San Antonio's Tony Parker appear to have a strong shot to land possible guard spots. Other guard candidates include Golden State's Stephen Curry, the Clippers' Jamal Crawford and Lillard.
"Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul – I think they are all definite All-Stars," Lillard said. "It will be tough for me being a rookie and those guys putting in so much more time than I have."
Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas was voted in as a starting guard in the 1982 NBA All-Star Game as a rookie with the Detroit Pistons. Jordan and Thomas were voted in by the fans after entering the NBA following successful, popular college careers.
"It was huge. I can't even describe the proper words that I felt when I made it that first year," Thomas said. "It was beyond belief because as a kid growing up, I never saw myself being one of them, in terms of an All-Star. To get voted on, you need a great appeal in terms of the fans. It's not only about your game, but it's about your fan appeal and likeability."
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Lillard entered the NBA from Weber State and was largely unknown to casual fans. Thomas believes Lillard deserves All-Star consideration from West coaches who pick the reserves. Blazers forwards LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum are also candidates, and there is certainly debate on whether the franchise deserves more than one All-Star.
"They're winning and [Lillard] has that Portland franchise in a position to make the playoffs this year," Thomas said.
Since 1985, the only rookies, regardless of position, to make the All-Star Game are New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing (1986), San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson (1990), Denver Nuggets center Dikembe Mutombo (1992), Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal (1993), Detroit Pistons forward Grant Hill (1995), San Antonio forward Tim Duncan (1998), Houston Rockets center Yao Ming (2003) and the Clippers' Blake Griffin (2011).
Even as heralded as LeBron James was when he entered the NBA as the No. 1 pick 10 years ago, he wasn't a rookie All-Star. James hasn't forgotten either.
"There are big-time players in both conferences," James said. "It's tough. It's tough for coaches to vote in a rookie no matter what they're doing because you have veterans doing just as much or even more. I was hoping I would be a part of it. I was playing well. We were winning enough games, but once again they went with a veteran. I think Jamaal Magloire was the last one to get in.
"I was upset because I wanted to be there. But you got to earn your stripes."
Lillard isn't holding his breath.
"The league is about seniority sometimes," Lillard said, "and they've all done what I am doing now."
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