Damian Lillard, the sixth overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft, has taken the league by storm.
Averaging around 18 points, six assists and two 3-pointers per game, he’s definitely right in line with the NBA’s recent crop of small ball players — with the likes of Jrue Holiday, Stephen Curry and Ty Lawson — eating up minutes for playoff hopeful teams along with the old reliables such as Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Jason Kidd.
The Portland Trail Blazers rookie fits somewhere between those two categories — the joyful exuberance of athleticism coupled with the calming poise of a grizzled veteran. Yes, to a degree, Lillard exhibits both of those qualities — which makes him such a promising player to watch.
But like a snowball that’s threatening to become a landslide — is Damian Lillard’s legacy all hype or is he the real deal? Are people writing his All-Star candidacy too early or is it warranted?
To be honest, that question can’t really be answered definitely until Lillard clocks more minutes on his NBA odometer. Until he meets the grueling reality of scouting reports and the need for continuous evolution and improvement, it’s really uncertain whether Lillard’s current production is a sign of things to come or is it just a mirage. But nonetheless, we will try our best to cover as much ground as possible.
If you look at Lillard’s per game numbers, you’d think he was a superstar already (or at least an All-Star). Although definitions tend to vary among different people, there’s a certain relationship between producing big numbers and being branded a “star.”
The reason why you’re branded a star is because you’re rare — no one can produce like you. And indeed, per Basketball-Reference.com, only one other rookie has averaged at least 18 points, six assists and two 3s made. His name? Allen Iverson.
In fact, if we go even further than that and remove the “rookie” restriction, there were only 14 other players since 1979-80 season that posted similar numbers — players that include acknowledged stars such as Chauncey Billups, Gilbert Arenas, Baron Davis, Nash, Williams and Tim Hardaway.
So yes, what Lillard is doing is rare. But is he the real deal? Is he really a game changer? To answer that more definitively, we look at his advanced metrics.
At this point, Lillard’s greatest assets are his jumper and his pace — one that he’s used to power his offensive game. Despite its low release point, Lillard’s shooting motion is consistent — whether he has his feet set, is moving sideways, from a spin move or from a stop.
Coupled this with his quick release and what you get is a deadly jumper that needs to be respected. According to Synergy Sports, he’s elite as a spot-up shooter (scoring around 1.35 points per possessions, fifth-best in the league), as an isolation player (scoring one point per possession, 12th in the league) and as a pick-and-roll player (scoring around 0.89 points per possession, good for 26th in the league) particularly because of his jumper.
When teams decide to do soft hedges on him, he can just pull up for a jumper. When they decide to do hard hedges or traps, he can just do a sudden burst to get to open spaces, pass to the open roll or pop man or just continue dragging both defenders in the trap. Because of this, his team is 13.3 points per possession better when he is on the court. So as an offensive player, he’s great.
Or is he?
Well, on a total points-per-possession basis, Lillard only ranks 184th (which is right around average). Why is this so?? Because despite being scoring a lot of points, he takes a lot more possession than he needs because he turns the ball over a lot and because of his jumper.
Wait, what? But isn’t his jumper great?
For starters, among players who average 30 minutes and use 20 percent of their team’s possessions while on the court, Lillard ranks 11th, turning the ball over 15.3 percent of the time.
And despite his jumper being great, it’s held him back in terms of shot selection. At this point, it’s common knowledge that the mid-range jumper is an inefficient shot while shots at the rim and the 3-point line are the efficiency kings.
So far, Lillard takes around 3.9 shots at the rim (an above-average rate for PGs who play 25-plus minutes) while making them at a below-average rate (57 percent compared to a league average of 59 percent). He also takes mid-range jumpers at an above-average rate (3.2 per game compared to an average of 2.6) while making them at an above-average rate (42 percent to 38 percent).
Lastly, he takes 3-point shots at an insane amount (6.3 attempts to an average of 3.6) and makes them at an almost average rate (54.2 percent effective field-goal percentage to an average 53.7 percent eFG). So despite making shots from 16 to 23 feet at an above-average rate, that doesn’t make it a good shot (unless you’re making 50 percent of them like Dirk Nowitzki or Kevin Garnett).
Compare this to Kyrie Irving — who’s taking four shots at the rim and making 55.1 percent of them (both are down from last year’s numbers), 4.7 shots from 16 to 23 feet while making 51 percent of them and five 3-point shots while having an eFG% of 58.7 percent.
But that’s the thing here — he’s near or below average in a couple of areas that if you add all of them up he’s pretty average (or close to it). His Offensive Rating? 108 (which is one above average). His PER is 16.8, 1.8 better than average.
So in truth, people are amazed at him for a lot of reasons. He’s a volume scorer,yes. But he’s not particularly an efficient one (or top tier). His assists are above average (29.3 percent assist rate) but he turns the ball over a lot (15.3 turnover percentage).
And despite that lofty “his team is better by 13 points when he’s on the court”, it only goes to underscore how terribly bad his team is. Portland is scoring at a rate that’s 15.4 points below average when Lillard is off the court. When Lillard goes in, they go from terrible to just below average.
All rookies have a hard time playing defense. Even Anthony Davis — who’s been widely accepted to be a great defensive player — struggles playing defense. So it’s no surprise that Lillard is a bad to below-average defender — he struggles with rotations and he’s a nightmare to watch defending the ball handler — both in isolation and in pick-and-roll situations.
Portland is 1.6 points worse defensively when Lillard is on the court. His per-possession numbers aren’t doing well; he ranks 137th and 111th in defending isolation and pick-and-roll, respectively.
So to sum it up — Lillard is a slightly above-average offensive player who’s bad defensively. We can excuse some of those defensive blame to learning the NBA game. But he isn’t anything special offensively … yet.
He has taken over the leadership role for a team that’s supremely top heavy — outside of their starting unit, the Trail Blazers are horrible — and he’s taken them from terrible to acceptably bad. People like to talk about how good a scorer Lillard is or how efficient he is or how good of a passer he is.
But that’s not why Lillard is good. In fact, all of those claims are wrong to an extent. What makes Lillard impressive is the fact that he can maintain average efficiency with such high usages as a rookie. That’s some feat.
You know who else has done that? Larry Bird, Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol, Vince Carter, Stephen Curry, Derrick Rose and Penny Hardaway, among others. That is a better indication of what type of future he has if he can improve on his already impressive rookie season.
So yes, Lillard is currently having an impressive rookie season and if the Rookie of the Year race ended now, he’d win by a landslide. He has the numbers to back that up (although not the raw box-score ones), the hype and the story — that dagger against the New Orleans Hornets, that nail-in-the-coffin 3 against the New York Knicks and all the other impressive games he’s already had.
He’s had a couple of bad games, too. But inconsistency is part of being a rookie and the goal is to find consistency. And if history is any indication, the type of player Lillard is going to become is special.
So to answer the question: Is Lillard all hype or the real thing?
Lillard is hyped for all the wrong reasons but he is the real thing.
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