Two years ago, not many people outside NBA circles knew Damian Lillard's name. Even fewer had actually seen the Weber State linchpin play. So excuse the Portland Trail Blazers guard for soaking in as much of All-Star weekend as he can.
By the time Sunday's All-Star Game rolls around, Lillard could be weary. He is the first player to compete in the Three-Point Contest, the Slam Dunk Contest, the Rising Stars game, the Skill Challenge and the main event.
The second-year player and reigning Rookie of the Year finds himself in the All-Star Game because he's played a big role in turning the Blazers into a Western Conference contender. While forward LaMarcus Aldridge is the main catalyst for Portland's newfound success, Lillard's place alongside him in Terry Stotts' offense is also essential.
The ball is more often than not in Lillard's hands, after all. He is second behind John Wall in total touches this season and ranks ninth in the NBA in time of possession per game, according to SportVU tracking data. While his 5.7 assists per game don't jump off the page, it's Lillard's scoring 20.7 points per game, and the two-man game with Aldridge, that has made the Trail Blazer's pick-and-roll hellish to defend.
Both players can shoot the ball, and Lillard's 40.4 percent three-point shooting has opened up opportunities for Aldridge's mid-range game to thrive.
More than 40 percent of plays ending with Lillard are of the pick-and-roll variety, and he scores 0.91 points per possession in such situations as the ball-handler, a top-25 mark in the league, according to Synergy Sports. Many of the times, such plays lead to Aldridge jumpers or posts, but the key is in Lillard's ability to score himself.
Perhaps what's even more important for Portland is Lillard's ability to score himself. Through 51 games, he was scoring the NBA's 13th-best mark of 1.05 point per isolation possession. Lillard is one of the most frequent drivers of the lane, and when the seas part, he has the athleticism to score at the rim. It's his shooting abilities that allow him to do so, and it's made him one of the best late-game scorers in the NBA in just his second season.
He can do it off the bounce or with his range, and he displayed that versatility with back-to-back game-winners this year against Cleveland and then Detroit.
The Blazers have been in plenty of close ones.
In Portland's games when the Blazers trail or lead by five points within the final three minutes, Lillard's points scored in those clutch situations is behind only LeBron James' 73 and Kyrie Irving's 65. Lillard has 63 points in such situations by shooting 42 percent and hitting 8-of-21 three-pointers. Most importantly, Portland is 19-10 is those games.
Sure, Lillard is arguably not even the best player on his Portland squad, but it's the point guard who makes the Aldridge pick-and-roll work. Lillard is helped by the floor-spacing duo of Wes Matthews and Nicolas Batum, but Lillard's ability to penetrate off the bounce has made their shooting abilities ultra-effective.
If Aldridge is the motor to Stotts' offense, Lillard is the fuel that makes it all churn.
Lillard will be recognized for helping the league's top-scoring team enter the All-Star break in the top half of a competitive Western Conference race. Unlike Blazers games, the events during All-Star weekend aren't hidden by the national TV schedule or the late-night starts. It is the TV schedule, and Lillard's face will probably receive more air time than even James or Kevin Durant, the two MVP candidates.
He's no longer the unknown senior out of Weber State, the point guard who starred against weak competition and bullied lower-level DI athletes. He's Damian Lillard, first-time All-Star and multi-talented All-Star weekend performer.
Lillard is participating in every event he earned an invite to because he's used to fighting to make himself known. It's not intentionally for show, but All-Star weekend will inherently display him as a well-known player -- even though Lillard was the least-likely All-Star just a few years ago.