The NBA appears to be fully entrenched in a new golden age of point guards, but it's still difficult to find one who had as good of a rookie season as Damian Lillard.
The Trail Blazers' floor general averaged more points per game than any rookie point guard since Allen Iverson in 1997. He led the league in minutes played and hit the fifth-most three-pointers in the NBA. He made a mockery of the Rookie of the Year race by the middle of the season, sweeping Rookie of the Month honors and becoming the fourth player ever to win the award unanimously.
What can Lillard do for an encore? When assessing how much the Blazers guard can improve, it's fair to note the inherent advantage he has over the rest of the 2012 draft class.
While the likes of Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bradley Beal and Andre Drummond each played last season as 19-year-olds following just one season of college basketball, Lillard was drafted as a 22-year-old after four years of college. What he lacked in elite pedigree, he made up for with experience and an offensive game that arrived close to fully formed.
That's not to diminish what Lillard did as a rookie. The NBA doesn't have many players who were once two-star recruits coming out of high school and who spent their college days playing in the Big Sky. You don't land on NBA radars playing at Weber State unless you're really good, and that's exactly what Lillard proved to be as a rookie.
There were plenty of highlights over the course of a season in which Lillard played and started in all 82 games. He scored 23 points against the Lakers in the first game of his career. By December, he had hit his first game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer against New Orleans. His propensity to play above the rim as a point guard also gave him a mightily impressive highlight reel, like his poster dunk over Nene or his ability to flush home alley-oops in transition.
Perhaps even more impressive than the hardware and statistics is the respect Lillard earned from some of the game's best players. He received a Twitter salute from Kobe Bryant after scoring 38 points in an April loss to Los Angeles. LeBron James also praised Lillard for his ability to control the pace of a game as a rookie.
But even after 41 20-point games in his first season, there's still plenty of room for Lillard to improve. Mostly, it will have to come on the defensive end.
Lillard was widely considered an atrocious defender as a rookie, known to get lost in screens on the ball and away from it. Lillard allowed 1.01 points per possession in isolation situations, letting opponents shoot 45 percent when matched up one-on-one. That's not good. It was a big reason why Portland was the fifth-worst defensive team in the league.
Defensive improvement might be all it takes to get Portland into the playoffs this season, and the addition of center Robin Lopez should help fortify things in the middle. The Blazers flirted with postseason contention throughout last year before ending the season on a 13-game losing streak. The defensive adjustment from college to the pros is a notoriously difficult one, but Lillard has the size, athleticism and reach to one day turn into a good defender.
An improved bench should help alleviate some of the pressure on Portland defensively. The Blazers were notoriously thin last season, playing four of their starters 35 minutes per game or more. It's tough to play hard at both ends of the floor every night during a physically taxing 82-game season. Now Lopez, Mo Williams, C.J. McCollum, Thomas Robinson and Dorell Wright have been brought over in hopes of avoiding another late-season collapse.
It wasn't long ago the Blazers were considered the gold standard for adding and developing young talent, but injuries to Greg Oden and Brandon Roy set the franchise back a few years. The Blazers needed another star to team with LaMarcus Aldridge and help convince the big man to stay in Portland. Lillard certainly looks like that guy after just one year.
Lillard looked so good as a rookie that it's fair to wonder how close he may already be to his ceiling, especially given his advanced age compared to the rest of last year's draft class. Even if he only makes moderate gains defensively while maintaining his offensive efficiency, his presence should help wipe away some of the painful memories associated with Roy and Oden.
Given that Lillard was playing against Montana State and Northern Colorado as recently as two years ago, the Blazers couldn't ask for much more.