Damian Lillard got his first look at Chris Paul, up closer and personal, during last Thursday's tilt between the Portland Trail Blazers. Now, it's up to the rookie sensation to parlay the lessons learned from that matchup into the growth of his own game going forward.
Paul (predictably) outplayed Lillard in the Clips' 103-90 victory, outscoring (21-16), out-rebounding (4-2) and out-diming (6-4) his 22-year-old counterpart.
Not that Lillard played poorly. He matched the quick-handed CP3 with three steals and looked every bit the heady, scoring point guard that Paul was upon arrival with the New Orleans Hornets in 2005-06.
For his efforts, Lillard earned high praise from Paul, who told Chris Haynes of Comcast SportsNet Northwest:
Chris Paul says Damian Lillard can play. Says Portland better hold on to him.— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) November 9, 2012
Lillard has already been compared to a rather wide array of floor generals, from Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook to Deron Williams and Chauncey Billups. And though Lillard's size, strength, shooting ability, quickness, athleticism and aggressive style may alternately associate him with those All-Stars, it's Paul who provides the best blueprint.
Like CP3, Lillard is a pick-and-roll point guard in a pick-and-roll league. According to Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated, Lillard worked hard on his ability to run two-man sets during his days at Weber State. He spent extra time with assistant coach Phil Beckner to mesh his pre-existing abilities to dribble, shoot and make quick decisions into pick-and-roll proficiency.
And it's shown. He currently ranks among the most efficient pick-and-roll ball handlers in the league in terms of point per play (according to Hoop Prospect), thanks in part to an accurate pull-up jumper.
Like Paul, Lillard is patient with and always in control of his dribble when operating with a screener. CP3 is on a level all his own, though, with his ability to pin his defender to his backside and nail jumpers in the lane.
Few players, if any, in the NBA know how to manipulate their bodies in space as well or as frequently as Paul does, particularly in the pick-and-roll. If Lillard can learn to stick his man on his hip in a CP3-like manner, he'll render himself that much tougher to guard as a scorer.
But where Paul truly excels, and where Lillard would do well to do the same (and appears to be doing so), is as a set-up guy for his bigs. Paul made many a player a nifty payday during his time with the Hornets, including (but certainly not limited to) David West. The power forward, who currently plays for the Indiana Pacers, was a perfect pick-and-pop partner for Paul, regularly rolling out for (and hitting) jump shots between 16 and 18 feet.
As it happens, Lillard has a terrific pick-and-pop teammate of his own in LaMarcus Aldridge. The 2012 All-Star typically shoots better than 40 percent from just about every distance between the basket and the three-point line, per Hoopdata, and has taken quite well to doing so with Lillard delivering the ball thus far.
But Aldridge isn't the only player of size with whom Lillard can develop (and has developed) a lasting rapport. JJ Hickson is a young, athletic big man who figures to convert more than a few easy buckets with help from Lillard.
Perhaps the most intriguing partnership of all in Portland, though, is that which is burgeoning between Lillard and fellow rookie Meyers Leonard. The 11th overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft is averaging a solid 4.0 points and 4.5 rebounds in 19.2 minutes per game and has shown off the sort of size, length, leaping ability and fleetness afoot to screen and roll for Lillard's lobs for years to come.
Not unlike the way Paul has turned raw bigs into productive offensive players throughout his career. Just ask Tyson Chandler:
And, of course, Blake Griffin:
Clearly, Lillard has the tools and the teammates to be a franchise-caliber point guard, perhaps even one on CP3's level. Whether he winds up on Paul's level will depend on Damian's own commitment to improving his game.
And how closely he studies (and emulates) Chris' body of work.