Damian Lillard's historic rookie season deserves your attention

Kyle Terada-US PRESSWIRE

Does Damian Lillard's rookie season compare to the all-time great rookie seasons for a point guard in NBA history?

"I just think of how under control he is. It's like he's been here before. He's never out of his comfort zone. He's never too fast. He's never too slow. He plays in his own lane. His ability to shoot the ball and his ability to drive the ball makes him a threat." -- LeBron James

In a mere 53 words, the soon-to-be four-time MVP gave as concise a synopsis as anyone could give in assessing the Portland Trail Blazers rookie point guard Damian Lillard. In watching the Blazers play basketball this season, a team devoid of any substantial talent outside of their starting lineup and no clue whatsoever on how to play consistent defense, Lillard is the reason why we'll spend three hours watching this team play.

So yes, it's impressive that Lillard helped carry this Blazers squad near the fringes of the playoffs in a tough Western Conference up into the last month of the season, and become the undisputed rookie of the year by oh . . . January? But its even more impressive to see him perform beyond anyone's wildest expectations in a league full of extraordinary point guards and to have the respect of his peers.

See LeBron's quote above, or read Kobe Bryant's quote on going blow-for-blow with Lillard last Wednesday:

"Lillard came out and just started torching us. I figured I would try to keep up the pace. It was like a marathon runner, when a guy just takes off, and the guy behind him doesn't really want to chase after him but he has to just to keep pace."

...

"I just told him he was a bad boy. He was out there cooking with gasoline tonight. He was fantastic." -- Kobe Bryant

While LeBron and Kobe recognize what Lillard is doing in the present day, how does his rookie campaign stack up to the likes of legendary rookie point guards of yesteryear? A glance at some advanced stats and performance can help us get a better idea of how Lillard's rookie year compares.

(Quick note here: I excluded two point guards from this comparison: Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson. Magic's rookie season saw him play alongside Norm Nixon in 1979-80, who was the Lakers starting point guard. Oscar's rookie season of 1960-61 saw The Big O finish just 20 (!!!) rebounds away from averaging a triple-double, that same triple-double he'd average the following season. So yeah, they're both outliers as far as I'm concerned.)

  • Dame Be Scoring: Lillard's averaging 19.1 points/game this season, ranking him 13th in the NBA in scoring. Also of note, no rookie point guard has scored as many points per game since Allen Iverson in 1997.
  • Shooting The Lights Out: Lillard might have a case that his shooting performance in his rookie year is the best of all-time. Lillard's fifth in the NBA in threes made while shooting at a 37-percent clip, while his other shooting percentages (43 percent from the field, 85 percent from the free-throw line) mirror Chris Paul's 2005-06 rookie campaign.
  • Staying On The Court: Lillard's had every chance imaginable to contribute for Portland, as no player in the NBA has played more minutes this season (3,089, entering Wednesday) than Lillard. The last rookie point guard to play over 3,000 minutes was Iverson.
Once you begin comparing Lillard's first year performance to some of the other tremendous rookie campaigns, you see where the opportunities for growth lie. Lillard's proven that he's a capable scorer with an arsenal as vast as any point guard in today's game. His assists numbers are average compared to his floor-general peers and can improve. There's definitely room to grow on the glass, and defensively there's a big opportunity to get better.

This is the nitpick portion of the show, where we have to find something constructive to talk about with Lillard. Yes, the man doesn't rebound or defend like we'd prefer him to, but he's too damned busy carrying the Blazers on his back. However, that's really the scary point of this story with Lillard. Consider these three questions...

  • What if he does become a better rebounder and defender?
  • How would those assist numbers look if Portland had another go-to player besides the 6'10 shooting guard forward LaMarcus Aldridge?
  • Could Lillard become more efficient if he wasn't playing 40 minutes a night?
If those questions ever have positive answers, then we won't be talking about Lillard's historical rookie performance anymore. Now, we'll be calling him one of the best point guards in the game with no hesitation. Because believe it or not, he's already in the discussion (at least in the top eight). Everyone else in the league is on alert for when Lillard comes to their town.

More from SB Nation:

Paul Flannery: A letter from Boston

CelticsBlog: We are Boston

2013 NBA mock draft: An overly exuberant scout's take

Sharp: Of course Kobe is coming back

NBA lottery watch: Bobcats, Magic in battle for last

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