Lillard has so far proven general manager Neil Olshey right after Olshey made Lillard a very questionable No. 6 overall pick in June’s draft.
It seemed an awfully big risk for a franchise that hasn’t exactly lit it up on draft day recently.
Guard Nolan Smith, picked No. 21 overall in 2011, isn’t in the rotation. He’s playing less than nine minutes a game this year and has been a DNP-CD (did not play-coach’s decision) nine times already this season.
Elliot Williams, taken No. 22 overall in 2010, didn’t play at all as a rookie after double knee surgery and managed just 24 games last season before injuring his shoulder in practice in March. He’s out for the year this year, suffering a torn Achilles’ tendon in September.
Victor Claver, the Spanish forward taken No. 22 overall in 2009, has bounced back-and-forth between the Blazers and the D-League this season. He’s played in just eight games for Portland, starting two, and is 3-for-20 from the floor.
Brandon Rush was taken No. 13 overall in 2008 and never played for the Blazers. He was traded to the Indiana Pacers days after the draft as part of a package that brought Jerryd Bayless and Ike Diogu to Portland. Bayless is now with the Memphis Grizzlies; Diogu is out of the league and playing in China.
Then there was the whole Greg Oden thing with the first overall selection in 2007. He played a total of 82 games and is out of the league at the age of 24.
So no franchise needed a top-10 pick to turn out well more than the Trail Blazers did this year.
Lillard hasn’t disappointed. He’s moved to the front of the class in the Rookie of the Year discussion by opening the season averaging 18.4 points and 5.9 assists in his first 16 games. Through 24 games, he’s averaging 18.5 and 6.5 and is helping to keep Portland at or near the .500 mark despite a horrible defense and no depth.
Even when he doesn’t shoot well, the rookie from Weber State seems to be able to make his team better, such as he did in a 101-93 win over Denver Thursday night. Lillard was just 3-for-14 from the floor but handed out 10 assists.
It was Portland’s fourth win in a row, a season high. The Nuggets certainly helped Portland’s cause by going bagel-for-22 from the 3-point line—setting an NBA record for long-distance futility—but the Trail Blazers prevailed even without LaMarcus Aldridge, out with an ankle injury.
For a franchise that won its only title in 1977 and has been plagued with high draft picks who are star-crossed because of injuries (Bill Walton, Sam Bowie, anyone?), any sign of hope instead of hype and disappointment from draft day has to be a positive development.
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