The battle for NBA Rookie of the Year has come down to Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard and New Orleans Hornets forward Anthony Davis. Lillard seems to have the inside track, while Davis—the preseason favorite—is starting to gain momentum since returning from a foot injury.
Both contenders lead their rookie class in the statistical categories that play to their strengths. Lillard, a dynamic scoring point guard from Weber State, leads all rookies in points (18.2) and assists (6.5) per game. The freakishly long and athletic Davis, meanwhile, leads all first-year players in rebounds (8.1) and blocked shots (1.86) per contest, as of Jan. 10.
Let's take a look at some extraordinary performances from both men to see what separates them from the rest of the freshman pack.
We'll start with Lillard, the current front-runner for top rookie honors. Here's a highlight reel from Lillard's impressive NBA debut against the Los Angeles Lakers. In this game, the No. 6 overall pick gashed the Lakers for 23 points, while also managing to dish out 11 assists.
In this video, you'll see three things Lillard does well. First, he's a good spot-up shooter. In the first play of the reel, he fearlessly drains a three-pointer in the face of Lakers guard Steve Nash. This season, Lillard's shooting nearly 42 percent from the field and 35 percent from behind the arc.
The clip also showcases Lillard's ability to get others involved with excellent passes. Even for a scoring point guard, he distributes the ball well. He also has the benefit of having a solid-shooting big man like LaMarcus Aldridge, who will help Lillard's assist numbers by draining long jumpers like you see throughout the video.
The best dish of the entire reel comes at the 1:37 mark. Lillard drives to the basket, but rather than force a tough shot, he darts a perfect pass to Nicolas Batum for the corner three. On that play, you also see Lillard's ability to penetrate. His aggressiveness when attacking the basket is another strength that makes him such a remarkable scorer.
Now, here are some highlights from the NBA debut of No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis. On the same night that Lillard torched the Lakers, Davis scored 21 points and grabbed seven rebounds against the San Antonio Spurs.
In this clip, you'll see some of the skills that make "The Unibrow" so special. The first two plays of the clip show off Davis' uncanny mid-range jumper. The biggest concern facing the 19-year-old Davis was that he was still raw offensively. However, shots like those prove he's made some strides and has become a capable scorer.
At the 0:23 mark, look at how Davis comes off the pick and attacks the rim. After missing the tough shot, he has the quickness and athleticism to grab his own rebound. Then he hits the easy layup for the hoop and the harm. Davis' ability to finish around the rim will make him a devastating offensive weapon for the Hornets, especially when paired with a passer like point guard Greivis Vasquez.
At 1:08, this is something we are going to see a lot of in this young man's career. The Spurs get the steal and start the fast break. Davis jets down the court and closes on Kawhi Leonard just in time for the emphatic swat against the backboard. With his speed and huge wingspan, Davis is going to be one of the league's best shot-blockers for many years.
Lillard and Davis battled against each other for the first time as pros on Dec. 16. Davis scored 15 points, grabbed five rebounds and had a blocked shot. Lillard didn't do much better offensively, scoring 16 points and doling out four assists.
However, Lillard contributed the three biggest points of the entire game.
With the game tied at 92 with four seconds remaining in regulation, Lillard knocked down the game-winning three pointer. The buzzer-beater showed impressive poise by the rookie as well as the confidence the team had in its young star to hit that shot, despite an otherwise poor shooting night. Lillard was 4-of-13 up until that shot, and he drained it with the much taller Ryan Anderson in his face.
Davis will have two more opportunities to extract his revenge, as the Hornets face the Blazers on Feb. 13 and March 10, both times in New Orleans.
In the meantime, Davis is going to have to string together some exceptional performances to catch Lilard in the race for Rookie of the Year. Lillard has managed to stay healthy all season and is the only Blazer to play in all 35 games so far. Meanwhile, Davis has played in only 22 of New Orleans' 35 games, as he's battled a concussion and a foot injury.
Lillard is the superior scorer and has the benefit of playing on a better team. Portland is currently the seventh seed in the Western Conference. Davis' Hornets, despite winning five of their last eight, still hold the West's worst record and need a miracle to get into playoff contention.
When it's all said and done, Lillard will be this year's Rookie of the Year, but it will be fun to watch these two battle it out the rest of the season.