Damian Lillard Is on Pace for Top NBA Rookie Year as Guard Since Michael Jordan

Jesse DorseyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 14, 2013

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 30: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers is defended by Chris Wilcox #44 and Jason Terry #4 of the Boston Celtics while going up for a layup during the game on November 30, 2012 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Damian Lillard is the leader in the NBA's Rookie of the Year race, and he's trying to become the first rookie guard to make the All-Star Game since Michael Jordan did it back in 1985. 

Lillard is currently averaging 18.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists and a steal per game, while taking over a leadership role with the Portland Trail Blazers, who sit at 20-17 on the season.

It's a bold claim, for sure. Since Michael Jordan brought home the Rookie of the Year Award back in '85, 10 other guards have won it, a handful putting together seemingly better, more unique seasons than Lillard has so far.

Going down the list, we've seen Kyrie Irving, Tyreke Evans, Derrick Rose, Brandon Roy, Chris Paul, Steve Francis, Allen Iverson, Damon Stoudemire, Mitch Richmond and Mark Jackson win the ROY Award as one of the smaller dudes on the floor.

As far as teams go, many of these players have come out as a pronounced leader of their teams as Lillard has, but not all have had as much success in the win column as Lillard and the Blazers have had up to this point.

The Blazers' 20-17 record gives them a winning percentage of 54 percent, and they're on track to make a run for a playoff spot.

Looking at it, Lillard's 18.3 points put him a distance behind Iverson, who leads all of these fellows with 23.5 points per game. His 6.5 assists trail Mark Jackson's 10.6 average, but playing in the late '80s and throwing alley-oops to Patrick Ewing is going to do that to you.

While Lillard has been fine when you look at him stat-wise, but where he really excels extends beyond just scoring and passing the ball.

Only two rookie guards have led teams to a .500 record or better, and that was Derrick Rose with the 2009 Chicago Bulls, who finished 41-41, and Mitch Richmond with the Golden State Warriors, who finished 43-38.

When you take a look at each of these players, both landed in similar situations as Lillard, playing alongside a team with a handful of good players already established.

While Lillard has LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Wes Matthews, Rose hopped onto a team with Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah, while Richmond had Chris Mullin, Terry Teagle and Winston Garland.

It certainly helps to have a solid team set up when a dynamic rookie joins the squad, but aside from the likes of Irving, Rose, Roy and Paul, the leadership of these other award-winners is nowhere near what Lillard has done for his team this year.

Looking back at Evans, Francis, Iverson, Stoudemire, Richmond and Jackson, we see rookie stat-sheet stuffers. Guys like Jackson and Richmond did go on to become fine team leaders as their careers wore on, but for the most part (without trying to downplay how good they were) their rookie seasons were displays of individual athleticism.

Lillard is right on line with the likes of Irving, Rose, Roy and Paul statistically, and he's definitely on par with them in terms of his becoming an instant leader of their respective teams.

When you go to pick out just which player stands out above the rest, things start to get sticky.

The thing that makes Lillard's rookie season pop out above others is the revolutionary style of play that he's exhibited over the course of the season.

Whereas Paul and Irving are similar players, and Rose is a part of the new, uber-athletic point guards that light the world on fire, Lillard is something different.

On the surface, Lillard is playing the style of the early-2000s guard, shooting often, scoring and picking up assists on the run.

However, he's got a dash of that flashy athleticism that, while a lot more prominent in the Big Sky Conference, is still extremely noticeable in the NBA.

On top of it all, he's got the leadership and all the intangibles that most teams look for in a point guard. He's a cocktail of players that continues to befuddle defenses.

Is he going to end up being the first rookie selected to the All-Star Game since Michael Jordan? I sincerely doubt that. He's got to go up against Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, James Harden, Tony Parker, Steve Nash and Jeremy Lin. That's too steep a hill to climb for the young fellow.

However, should this pace continue, and the Trail Blazers keep playing solid basketball, his rookie season is going to go down as a very special.