Oakland has quite a reputation for turning out NBA point guards—basketball's answer to San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, which is known as "The Cradle of Shortstops."
The gritty city in the East Bay has produced its fair share of noteworthy floor generals, including Gary Payton, Jason Kidd and Brian Shaw.
Will Damian Lillard be the next in that illustrious line?
The senior out of Weber State is already well on his way. He dominated the Las Vegas Summer League in July, posting an eye-popping line of 26.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists on the way to collecting co-MVP honors.
But it'll take more than big numbers against rookies and scrubs for Lillard to reward the Portland Trail Blazers faith in making him the No. 6 pick in the 2012 NBA draft.
Much less put himself alongside the likes of The Glove and J-Kidd in the pantheon of Bay Area point guards.
If Lillard makes good on all the Chauncey Billups comparisons that've been thrown around, though, he'll have little trouble satisfying expectations.
How Lillard Fits In
The Billups example is an appropriate one for Lillard. The Blazers new rookie was easily the best point guard in the 2012 draft, albeit it was a weak crop. But, like Mr. Big Shot, Lillard is more of a scoring floor general than of the "pure" pass-first variety.
Not because Lillard isn't a proficient facilitator and distributor, but because he's so good at putting the ball in the basket. The Big Sky Conference Men's Player of the Year ranked second in the NCAA in scoring (24.5 points per game) and free throws made. Those stats stem from his excellent skills as a penetrator, as a finisher with a strong left hand and as a long-range shooter.
More importantly, Lillard does all of this efficiently. He shot 40.9 percent from three and needed just 15.5 shots to rack up his 24.5 points per game as a senior. Lillard also posted eye-popping points-per-possession numbers in just about every scoring situation imaginable (per Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress):
Lillard's pick-and-roll proficiency makes the Billups reference particularly fitting. Lillard showed a superb understanding in college of how to operate in the two-man game, be it as a scorer:
Or as a passer:
Such skills will come in handy in Portland, where the Blazers employ a slew of mobile big men (LaMarcus Aldridge, J.J. Hickson, Jared Jeffries and rookie Meyers Leonard) who are solid-to-spectacular at screening and rolling.
It helps Lillard's case, too, that he takes such good care of the ball. Per Mike Schmitz, Lillard averaged all of 0.12 turnovers per possession—or one turnover every 8.3 possessions. His tight dribble and poise under pressure serves him well in this regard.
Adjustments Lillard Must Make at the Pro Level
Lillard's game has given scouts reason for concern, though, even while playing (or, rather, because he played) the majority of his games in college against middling competition.
For one, his defense has been cause for alarm in the minds of some Blazers officials. According to DraftExpress, Lillard did well defending in isolation in college (0.54 points per possession), but struggled against spot-up shooters (1.03 PPP), those coming off screens (1.19 PPP) and still others who took pull-up jumpers off the dribble (1.09 PPP).
Many of Lillard's defensive shortcomings stem from an apparent lack of hustle when fighting through screens and providing help. With the explosion of quality point guards and pick-and-roll basketball in the NBA today, it's all the more important for Lillard to step up his level of energy and intensity in all aspects of his defensive game.
And though Lillard's strengths are clearly on offense, his play even on that end of the floor has given some scouts pause. Lillard won't have the same free reign to score that he enjoyed in college, if only because the quality of competition in the NBA will be leaps-and-bounds above what he faced in the Big Sky Conference.
Lillard has shown that he can be a willing passer, though he registered only one assist every five possessions or so as a senior at Weber State. As such, there figures to be a learning curve for Lillard as he adjusts to a new role on a new team on a new plane of basketball existence.
With all of that being said, Damian Lillard deserves tremendous credit for transforming himself from a lightly recruited high school nobody to an NBA-lottery pick over the course of his four-year college career—even more for doing so at a small, relatively unknown school in a low-major conference.
Lillard's rise to stardom is a credit to his tireless work ethic. He had a reputation as a gym rat during his days at Weber State, always setting the tone for his teammates by being the first to arrive at practice and the last to leave.
He's not a boisterous personality by any means, but carries with him a quiet confidence that extends to those around him.
On the whole, Lillard might best be described as a self-made basketball player:
Like so many NBA hopefuls, Lillard came from modest beginnings and, with tons of hard work and determination, overcame the odds—his upbringing in Oakland, his lack of a national profile on the court and his defiance of a conventional position—to become a promising pro prospect.
Rookie Year Projections
As mentioned earlier, Damian Lillard has plenty of catching up to do after coming out of a low-level college program. Fortunately, he'll have every opportunity to do just that as the likely starter at point guard for the Blazers from day one.
That is, unless, by some miracle of miracles, Ronnie Price or Nolan Smith steps up in training camp.
Assuming Lillard hangs onto his spot atop head coach Terry Stott's depth chart, he should be able to average 14-15 points per game, along with five assists and three rebounds.
It's no wonder then that Bovada.lv has Lillard listed as the second favorite to win the 2012-13 Rookie of the Year award. His 6-to-1 odds are bested only by those of New Orleans Hornets stud and 2012 No. 1 overall pick, Anthony Davis, who's pegged as a 9-to-4 favorite for winning the award.
As far as Portland's success is concerned, a 35-win season would be reasonable, though the Blazers could sneak into the 40-win range with a few lucky breaks. On the one hand, that might be too much to expect for PDX in a rebuilding year, especially after the team crumbled in the second half of last season.
On the other hand, the Blazers should be better with a healthy LaMarcus Aldridge and without much of the dead weight (i.e. Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford) that held them back last year.
Ultimately, the Blazers will only go as far as the Lillard takes them.
Good luck, rook!
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