4 Reasons Damian Lillard Will Eventually Make Trail Blazers Playoff Contenders
Damian Lillard was near the top of a lot of preseason rookie of the year ballots, but he has done his part thus far to raise expectations even higher. Through six games, the Portland Trail Blazers' 22-year-old rookie has averaged 18.8 points and 7.0 assists per game and has lived up to the hype that comes with being the No. 6 overall pick.
In Portland, Lillard's performance couldn't be better-timed. The Blazers are still a young team and have a lot of talent, and Lillard has a chance to become the motor that makes the machine go. Fans are still stung by the retirement and subsequent un-retirement of former franchise cornerstone point guard Brandon Roy, and Lillard has done a superb job of helping them move on.
The future is bright in Portland and the selection of Lillard will go a long way toward making the Blazers a perennial playoff contender. They're not there yet, but fans have reason to believe that Portland can challenge the best in the West.
It may take a while, but there are many reasons why Lillard will have an integral role in Portland's rise to prominence.
He Gets Everyone Involved
It's premature to call Lillard the next great all-around point guard, but it's simply amazing how well he's adjusted to life in the NBA after starring primarily as a scorer at a Big Sky school. His ability to pass the ball has been on display even though it wasn't considered a primary strength in college.
Lillard is averaging seven assists per game. During his final year at Weber State, he averaged a respectable four assists, which represented a career high. But it's not like Lillard was supposed to pass—he was looked on to score in bunches. That's what makes his transformation into a solid passer so stunning. Even though it seemed Lillard would be nothing more than a good scorer, he has managed to adjust and become a great passer as well.
Perhaps we should have seen this coming. Lillard was very efficient and unselfish in college; he didn't rack up assists but he still had a hand in setting up shots. He was a scorer, yet he averaged almost 25 points per game in his senior year on a paltry 15.5 shots per game. That means he was distributing the ball and getting his teammates involved, and only shooting when necessary. When he did shoot, he usually made it.
He was the model of efficiency and he could be the perfect teammate for players like LaMarcus Aldridge, who will depend on Lillard to use his ball-handling and passing skills to deliver the ball into the low post for easy buckets.
He's a Pure Scorer
You can look at all the film you want and break down his game into little pieces—no matter what you see, there's no denying that Lillard is a gifted and capable scorer. He has no discernible weakness in his offensive game outside of mid-range shooting. He can drive and finish with both hands, and can drain pull-up jumpers with deadly efficiency. His shooting percentage is hovering around 43 percent at the moment, but it should rise to around 47 percent as the season goes on.
Lillard is not a small guard either. He has a very solid 6'3'', 195 pound frame that can finish through contact. The best indication of his future offensive success lies in his ability to use his body to his advantage. He was second in the nation in free throws made in his senior season, meaning that he was initiating contact after driving to the hoop. His scoring average was buoyed by his superb 89 percent clip at the charity stripe.
He can shoot, he can drive, and he can get to the free throw line. What more could you want from a scorer? Those are all the elements of a future 25-point per game player. If Lillard can continue to be aggressive, Portland will be all too willing to unleash his talents on other teams in the NBA.
He's an Excellent Athlete
Point guards are rarely athletic specimens but Lillard has scouts wondering what the ceiling is. He has a rare combination of size and speed that point guards these days seldom possess.
Lillard's biggest attribute in terms of athleticism is his ability to push the ball in transition. For a young team like the Trail Blazers, an up-tempo style is probably the best fit. Lillard can play in a high-octane offense. He can finish on the break, or he can pass off to a teammate and allow them to make a play.
Another thing that will excite Portland fans is Lillard's ability to play above the rim. There will be more than a few times when the young guard throws it down emphatically. He has an excellent first step and could make a few highlight-reel plays by getting around a defender and slamming it home.
The NBA is tailored toward elite athletes more than ever, and Lillard will thrive in his role. If Portland opens up the offense and allows him to play his game, there's no question that he will find a niche. Fans in Portland will soon know to rise to their feet every time their young star gets out into transition, because something exciting is about to happen.
He's a Deadly Shooter
Lillard can score with the best of them, that's already been established. But there's a difference between a player who can score and a player who can shoot. For example, LeBron James can score but his three-point shooting isn't particularly special. Ray Allen can shoot, but his overall ability to score is less than phenomenal.
Lillard not only combines the two skills well, he excels at both. But his shooting is something special. He has range that extends well beyond the NBA three-point line and can fill it up from downtown despite his unorthodox shooting form. During his senior year, he hit a superb 40 percent of his threes even though he took over seven per game. That efficiency is excellent and will serve him well in the NBA, especially since he excels at the catch-and-shoot.
If Lillard never develops into the pure scorer the Blazers hope, he'll still have his range to fall back on. Portland will run numerous screens and cuts to get Lillard open. He's hit at least one three-pointer in every game this season and could finish near the top of the league come April.
If there's one flaw in Lillard's shooting game, it's that he often takes too many off-balance or low-percentage threes. He'll often get overconfident and start jacking up trifectas indiscriminately.
If the Blazers can reign him in, he'll have a nice career in Portland. Without a doubt, he'll have a positive impact on a franchise that is looking for its first NBA title since 1977.