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Why Damian Lillard Will Challenge Anthony Davis for Rookie of the Year

LAS VEGAS - DECEMBER 17:  Tre'Von Willis #33 of the UNLV Rebels goes for a steal between Damian Lillard #1 and Matt Washington #33 of the Weber State Wildcats during their game at the Thomas & Mack Center December 17, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Ethan Sherwood StraussNBA Lead WriterSeptember 15, 2016

The following comes with the caveat that we don't quite know how good Damian Lillard will become. There is reason to doubt the kid—he played for a small school in a small conference, he's older than your average rookie. Though Lillard looked fantastic in Summer League, so too did Anthony Randolph. If Damian comes out and plays badly, forget I said anything. 

But I don't happen to think that Lillard will play badly. He's operated the pick and roll so deftly, and that's half the point guard battle in today's NBA. According to Jonathan Givony at Draft Express, Lillard was the most efficient pick-and-roll runner in all of college basketball. He's also blessed to have the perfect PnR partner in LaMarcus Aldridge, a lengthy big who can hit from mid-range, unobstructed by closeouts. 

The pieces are there for Lillard's Blazers to over-perform expectations, faint praise as that might be. But if Damian can play to his potential, he'll be doing so alongside one of the league's best power forwards. Portland is more stricken by injuries than a general talent deficit. 

NBA awards are framed by expectations, with the better story often beating the better player (See Derrick Rose winning the 2011 MVP over LeBron James and Dwight Howard). Anthony Davis is the odds-on favorite for ROY by a wide margin. What does this mean? Well, it does mean that AD will probably secure the hardware. But, it also means that media members will be searching for a way not to give in to the predictable outcome from now until the end of this season.  

This is how Karl Malone wins an MVP over Michael Jordan. Writers get bored, and they search for a means of either honoring or creating surprises. It's always prudent to make an educated guess as to where their capricious affirmations might swerve to. And by "prudent" I mean "prudent if you're not so prudently gambling on such awards." 

But most of all, I believe in Lillard's ROY potential because he's fun to watch. He's fast as a bat at 6'2" and prone to the occasional highlight dunk.  

Like the ability to surprise, an aesthetically pleasing game matters a lot in these award races. Lillard is slick with his movements, and the ball is usually in his hands. At his best, he conjures visions of Allen Iverson, with his ability to throw corpus at contact. With his PnR deftness, he can—at best—conjure visions of Steve Nash. While it is unlikely that he'll display such a high level of facility at the pro level, his college and Summer League success speak to nice potential. 

Unlike so many other rookies, Lillard will get a starter's opportunities. He's first on the depth chart at his position, and no one else is close. The Blazers had long been rumored as a Steve Nash suitor in 2012, but they left the sweepstakes upon drafting this kid. Rich, eccentric Blazers owner Paul Allen has been reported (via Yahoo!) to be "enamored" with his prospect.

So Lillard has the stage and could very well own it by year's end. If Damian can control his team's pace while siphoning all the assists he can from LMA's sweet jumper, he might be this year's surprise Rookie of the Year. 

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