Damian Lillard is your 2012-13 NBA Rookie of the Year.
The award may not officially be his until May, but the NBA may begin engraving his name on the trophy. There are seasons where the debate over the best rookie continues until a winner is ultimately named, but there is no need for that this year.
Lillard is doing it all for the Portland Trail Blazers. He leads all rookies in scoring, averaging 18.4 points per game, and has erased any doubts that he lacks the passing ability to play point guard, as his 6.5 assists per game also ranks first among rookies.
Portland is back in the playoff race in the Western Conference and they wouldn’t be there without their rookie point guard. Like most NBA players, Lillard has been blessed with incredible athletic ability. However, that is not the reason Lillard is the best rookie in the NBA this year. The reason Lillard is clear-cut favorite for the Rookie of the Year award is because he works … hard.
Lillard’s coach at Weber State, Randy Rahe, has even been quoted as saying he sometimes wondered if he was working too hard. Lillard’s path to the NBA has been forged by his relentless work ethic and determination.
The buzz around Lillard grew from the sound of a few bees to that of a massive hive leading up the draft. Lillard elevated his draft stock more than anyone in the draft last summer.
He impressed scouts with his quickness, hustle and ability to consistently hit the outside jumper. Lillard chose to work out for teams alone and not with or against any other draft participants. Lillard wanted to showcase his skills and this provided him the stage to do so.
Lillard reportedly went full speed for 90 minutes, running until the point of exhaustion while making shot after shot. Portland was not the only team that Lillard impressed leading up to the draft. The Sacramento Kings, Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors were all impressed by what they saw in Lillard.
It was reported that Portland had not been so impressed by a player they were considering drafting since they scouted Kevin Durant. Lillard was equally as impressive to the Trail Blazers off the court. His composure and maturity stood out from the other draft participants.
There was no way Lillard would slip past Portland, which had the No. 6 pick in the first round of the 2012 draft and he didn’t. Portland made Lillard their first-round choice and his NBA journey began.
The first opportunity Lillard had to showcase his skills was the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. There were some experts questioning the level of competition that Lillard faced at Weber State, a mid-major school in the Big Sky Conference that did not face the top teams in the country.
Those concerns were quickly alleviated as Lillard became one of the best players in the Summer League. Lillard stood out among his peers, averaging 26.5 points and 5.3 assists per game and was named co-Most Valuable Player of the NBA Summer League.
Lillard made the transition from Weber State to the NBA look far easier than anyone could have anticipated. I spoke with Lillard after a Feb. 6 game in Dallas and asked him what the biggest difference is coming from college to the NBA.
“I think the size, length and athleticism of everybody on the floor,” Lillard said.
Despite playing against better competition, Lillard had a strong preseason and earned the starting point guard spot in Portland.
When the regular season began, Lillard wasted no time proving his Summer League and preseason play were no fluke. Lillard joined NBA Hall of Famers Isiah Thomas and Oscar Robertson as the only rookies to average at least 19 points and six assists in their first 10 games as a pro.
Lillard has since won the NBA Western Conference Rookie of the Month award in November, December and January. Lillard is leading all rookies in scoring and assists per game while helping turn around a Portland team that finished 10 games under .500 last season. This year, with Lillard running the show at point guard, the Trail Blazers are contending for the final playoff spot in a deep Western Conference.
Despite his success, Lillard is still growing as a player. He is no longer a surprise to opposing teams who are now making him a focal point of their defensive strategy. I asked Lillard how teams are defending him differently now compared to the beginning of the season.
“I think every team is defending me a lot differently,” Lillard said. “At the beginning of the season, I was coming off pick-and-rolls with clean looks and now teams are rotating to me. Everything is a little bit harder. I might have to take one more dribble, drive a little bit harder, so it’s not as simple as it was at the beginning of the season.”
Teams may be adjusting to Lillard, but he has spent extra time watching film and that has allowed his success to continue.
“When teams adjust to me, I watch a lot of film with our coaches so I adjust as well,” Lillard said. “When I see that a team is successful guarding me a certain way, I expect that from another team because they think it might work for them, so I watch film and I adjust just as other teams adjust.”
The NBA season is much longer than the college season that rookies are accustomed to. We are now more than three months into the season, but Lillard has shown no signs of slowing down. He has improved his scoring in February, averaging 21.4 points per game this month.
Portland will need Lillard’s strong play to continue if they are to stay in the playoff race. His All-Star teammate, LaMarcus Alrdidge, has valuable advice for the talented rookie.
“Make your work efficient; don’t be wasting your time in the gym,” Aldridge said. “Once we get past the All-Star break, we can’t afford for him to hit that wall, so he just needs to be smart.”
Aldridge may not need to worry. Lillard may still learning but he has done nothing but improve during his rookie season and is only scratching the surface of what could be a fantastic NBA career. Every young player experiences a different set of challenges as they become accustomed to the NBA.
This will likely happen to Damian Lillard at some point but there is no doubt that his solution will be to work hard. It has gotten him this far, why would he stop now?
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