Kelley L Cox-US PRESSWIRE
Damian Lillard, a point guard from little-known Weber State, could be one of the top prospects selected in the 2012 NBA Draft. Where did he come from, and why is he rising so high after toiling in obscurity?
NEW YORK -- Damian Lillard puts his head down, blushes and forces a smile. He takes a deep breath, picks his head up and finally realizes it's time to get going. He mutters something under his breath as a stall tactic, then finally turns his face forward, not really sure where to begin with the speech he's being asked to give.
"This is Damian Lillard, from Oakland, California, Weber State University."
He motions with his hands, moves in his chair and darts his eyes to the right for just a second, clearly uncomfortable with having to kick things off this way. Another deep breath follows as he leans forward, looking directly to the side this time.
He refocuses, finally staring straight forward.
And I'm entering the 2012 NBA Draft.
He says the last line confidently, but then darts his eyes to the side again, trying to figure out what more to say. Stopping things here would be appropriate, but Lillard is caught in mid-thought, knowing he wants to say something more but still trying to put together the sentence in his head. Finally, he figures out how to make his point.
I'm just dreaming, pursuing my dream. So, follow me on my journey to the NBA.
He smiles again, but it's a nervous smile. A part of him seems to want to get this over with; another part of him wants validation that he doesn't sound silly. Finally, he looks back down at the table and shakes his head up and down.
OK. It's good.
As I write this, Lillard is in New York City, waiting to be selected in the lottery at the 2012 NBA Draft. But this entire sequence didn't take place in New York City. It took place several weeks beforehand, in front of a camera in a house in the Bay Area. This is "License to Lillard, Episode 1," a web video series designed to take people inside Lillard's preparation for the 2012 NBA Draft.
For Lillard, though, the video project's goal is far more fundamental.
"A lot of these guys that are here, you see them on TV all the time. They're at Kentucky or North Carolina," he says. "A lot of people don't know who I am. I come from a smaller school, and I'm not as well-known as they are. So 'License to Lillard' is more about people getting to know who I am, so that when I get up on the stage and their team drafts me, they're not like 'Who is this guy?'"
When Lillard's season ended in mid-March in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, a lot of people were asking themselves that question. Lillard caught the eyes of the most vigilant NBA scouts after averaging nearly 25 points per game in his fourth year at Weber State last season, but the rest of the NBA world didn't know who he was. Maybe he could be a steal near the end of the first round. Maybe he was destined to be a high-scoring small-conference guard that never made it.
Three months later, Lillard is being talked about as a lottery pick who could go as high as No. 5 in the draft. The Portland Trail Blazers, picking No. 6, seemingly covet him; reports out of Portland earlier last week suggested his solo workout was more impressive than anyone the Blazers have seen since Kevin Durant. But they're hardly the only ones. Lillard's hometown Warriors, picking seventh, are in the mix, while the Raptors, picking eighth, really like him and the Kings, picking fifth, are said to be big fans of his as well.
How did Lillard get from point A to point B? Call it a combination of perseverance, marketing, smart strategy and a bit of luck.
From the start, Lillard knew that the key to rising on draft boards was standing out instead of getting lost in a crowd of more well-known prospects. So he did two things that helped his stock tremendously.
First, he decided to participate in the drills at the pre-draft combine in Chicago when most of his other peers were sitting out because their agents felt they had nothing to gain. With guys like Kendall Marshall, Jeremy Lamb, Dion Waiters and others on the sidelines watching, Lillard impressed executives and scouts with his stamina and jump-shooting proficiency. For many of those guys, this was the first time seeing Lillard play in person. With nobody else as a point of comparison, Lillard showed executives an extra gear of competitiveness that the others didn't.
Lillard says his agent gave him the option of not participating, but it didn't fit with his personality.
"I'm from Oakland. I'm not scared of anybody," he says. "So I felt like showing up to Chicago to sit would be pointless."
The next step was one taken by many prospects before, but not by anyone else in his class. While the top guys traveled around the country with each other or with lesser prospects to go against each other, Lillard would only work out by himself. Some of this was circumstance -- the other top point guard, Marshall, is still recovering from a wrist injury suffered in the NCAA Tournament -- but most of it was by design. Lillard's logic was simple: if he works out by himself, he'll get more attention from teams.
"They see a lot of things that you do well as opposed to have 4-5 guys out there and you're evaluating each guy," he says. "When I'm by myself, they might be able to learn more about me. In meetings, they'll be able to learn more about me. It'll be more about me than six guys out there."
The advantage of working out solo is the attention, but the disadvantage is that you have to work harder. In four- or five-man workouts, the players take turns doing drills, getting more rest between them. In a solo workout, though, you're asked to go hard every second, and there's no time waiting in line to catch your breath.
But this style suits Lillard well, and it has for a while. Two years ago, Lillard, who was coming off a breakout sophomore year, broke his foot in the 10th game of the season. Prior to the injury, he admits he realized that starring in the Big Sky "wasn't as hard as I thought it would be." The foot injury was therefore the perfect motivation for Lillard before any sort of complacency set in. Now, he had to work hard to get back to his previous level. In the process he realized that, as hard as it was to get back to where he once was, he also had a chance to work even harder to reach a whole new level.
"That's when reality set in for me and I realized how much better I had to do everything and how much harder it would be," he says.
From that day on, Lillard devoted himself completely to the game. His college coach, Randy Rahe, has been quoted saying he was so impressed with Lillard's work ethic that he often wondered if he was working too hard. After the season ended, Lillard underwent rigorous workout routines with trainer Aalim Moor in Oakland to prepare him for the league.
After that kind of journey, the intensity of a solo workout doesn't scare him. He can play harder by himself than many prospects can play in groups.
"It's tough for some guys even in groups of four and five," Lillard says. "[But] I was able to show that I could have a great workout by myself, when I'm tired. I was able to push through and still be able to show my strengths."
Lillard was impressive at nearly every stop on his tour. The Blazers' workout gets the most attention, but Lillard was reportedly just as good in Sacramento, Toronto and hometown Golden State. At every stop on his journey, his stock rose just a bit. Now, it's hard to imagine him falling past the Raptors at No. 8.
Lillard's goal was to force NBA teams to pay attention to him. He succeeded and wowed everyone in the process.
The obvious question now is this: did Lillard really show teams what they had been missing all along, or did his stock benefit from controlled environments and external factors?
Supporters of the latter argument include ESPN's John Hollinger. The stat guru's annual draft rater frowned on Lillard, suggesting that Lillard's outstanding numbers at Weber State had to be taken with a grain of salt because they came "against a weak schedule" and with Lillard being "much older than most of the prospects at his position." These are strong words, but they're hardly unique concerns. Also, while Lillard is a tremendously efficient scorer, he also averaged only four assists per game last season, a very low number for a point guard.
There's not much more Lillard can say to address the age or competition concerns. He believes he wouldn't be where he is today unless he redshirted his junior year with that foot injury, and his strategy of working out in Chicago and doing solo workouts is designed to allay fears about coming from a small school. But he is vocal in his defense of his playmaking, and I have to say, it's pretty convincing.
"I didn't have NBA-level players around me," he says. "Some guys in this draft played with guys that are here with them. They're going to be lottery picks, and I wasn't fortunate enough to have teammates at the same level. So having NBA-level players around me in the league, I'll be able to show that I can make plays and make people better."
It's a fair point by Lillard. Marshall played with Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller, all of whom were in New York for media day. Kentucky's Marquis Teague, who did not receive a Green Room invitation, played with five other likely draft picks, including the likely No. 1 selection in Anthony Davis. Dion Waiters played with a deep Syracuse squad that was the best in the country for most of the year. A point guard is supposed to lift his teammates, but if those same teammates can't hit open shots or finish his passes, he won't get assists. Without assists, he loses his reputation as a "pure" point guard. It's a vicious, unfair cycle.
A look at the tape shows Lillard's potential in pick-and-roll situations. He's so strong shooting off the dribble that teams can't duck under the screen. If they try to go over or hedge screens hard, he's quick enough to turn the corner or split the trap. His floater is already very advanced for his age and, while he could still improve his ability to finish around the rim, he barrels into contact and gets to the free throw line often. He also gets really low to the ground when he dribbles, preventing teams from hacking away and forcing turnovers.
There aren't a ton of assists in there, to be fair, but there are a lot of smart passes. Lillard's big men didn't always roll to the rim, and his shooters didn't always make the shots, but Lillard usually got them the ball in good spots. If anything, the reason that Lillard's assist totals were down was because Weber State ran so many other plays designed to get him a shot, any shot. Those curls for Lillard to pop out and shoot a three? Those are the plays we won't see anymore. They'll be replaced by more pick-and-roll plays for Lillard to get assists.
"At Weber State, my responsibility was to score points," Lillard says. "That's what my team needed me to do to win games. I'm definitely a scorer. I'm not saying I'm not a scorer. But I'm comfortable making plays for other guys."
Ultimately, the answer here is a combination of things. Sure, the lack of point guards in this draft has helped his stock. Sure, his own journey through the pre-draft process has boosted his stock a tad more than most expected. But if you don't think Lillard can play, you haven't seen him enough.
There's a scene near the end of the first "License To Lillard" video where Lillard's trainer is teaching him how to curl his entire body over the pull-up bar. After a couple demonstrations, a nervous Lillard slowly goes to the bar, looking like he doesn't think he'll have any chance to complete the maneuver. "You make it look easy," he says with a shrug.
Sure enough, his journey completing the task is a struggle. On his first attempt, he gets his legs in the air, but can't curl them over his head. On his second attempt, he gets his legs up above his head, but can't flip them over his shoulders. It's only on the third attempt where Lillard finally gets his body fully turned over the bar, with his back facing the camera and his stomach turned 180 degrees from where it should be.
Much like this drill, Lillard's path to the top of the lottery certainly hasn't been conventional. Just don't dismiss him because of that.