Damian Lillard's Rookie of the Year Proves He's on Fast Track to Superstardom
Damian Lillard's time is almost now.
Not that this guarantees anything. He's also joined Tyreke Evans, Mike Miller and Emeka Okafor, who, while solid rotation players, haven't gone on to join the superstar ranks.
Yet, for Lillard, this award is a harbinger of how close he is to being held in similar esteem to the players in the first group. Why?
Because even before he won this award, we knew.
Lillard appeared in all 82 games and finished tied with Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers for the second-most minutes per night in the league (38.6). Portland relied upon him early and often, and while he had issues with ball control and defensive spacing, there wasn't much not to like.
The 22-year-old point man out of Weber State was drafted with the sixth overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft and finished his first season as a pro averaging 19.0 points, 6.5 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game, shooting 42.9 percent. He also knocked down 36.8 percent of his deep balls.
Closing out the year with such marks places Lillard alongside Oscar Robertson, Allen Iverson and Damon Stoudamire as the only four rookies in NBA history to average at least 19 points, six assists and three rebounds per game.
From Day 1, Lillard was able to distinguish himself from the rest of the league's newcomers. Initially, there were questions about him being able to run an offense at the NBA level. He never averaged more than four assists in college and wasn't considered an altruistic floor general.
That particular stigma didn't last long. Lillard immediately emerged as a go-to scorer—as most expected—but he complemented that with precise passing. He used his angles well and instantly developed a rapport with All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
It wasn't just that Lillard was good; he was great. He had games when he was seemingly unstoppable and did a bit of everything.
Lillard isn't LeBron, and he's never going to be. But that's not the point. In just one season, he has been able to put himself in the company of the elite players. That's the point.
Think of Lillard as Kyrie Irving, only healthier. Their playing styles are similar (Irving is a much more dangerous three-point shooter), but what really connects them is their career trajectory.
Irving was named to the 2013 NBA All-Star Game as a sophomore and is already considered a superstar. Lillard is on the same (fast) track. It will be difficult for him to become an All-Star next season, since the Western Conference has so many talented guards, but he's on that path. Which is something to appreciate.
Rookie of the Year can be a fickle honor. The standard you're held to instantly skyrockets and more is expected of you. Lillard's case is slightly different because, unlike most, he wasn't preordained a star upon being drafted. Not like Irving was. Not even like fellow rookie Anthony Davis was.
To that end, Lillard has already defied the odds, which had Davis running away with the award. He also won't be as readily accepted as a star the way Irving was. That's in part because, again, he plays in a conference brimming with talent in the backcourt, but mostly because this wasn't supposed to happen.
Even when it should have become clear that he would run away with the award, there were those who argued in favor of Davis. Though the unibrowed neophyte didn't have a bad year by any means, he was run off the court by injuries and wasn't relied on as heavily by the New Orleans Hornets as Lillard was by the Blazers.
In too many instances, we're programmed to think one specific thing. Davis was going to win the Rookie of the Year award because, well, he was supposed to.
Lillard quickly reshaped our perception of the rookie ladder, leaving the rest of his class in his wake, Davis included.
Is he now at the point where he is unconditionally accepted as an elite point man?
Unfortunately, no. There are always caveats involved. He wasn't supposed to make this successful a jump, so while he has been a pleasant surprise, skeptics will be slow to call him a star. Even though he is. Or rather, almost is.
Is Damian Lillard a future star?
He's right there. That's what he showed us this season. The game-winning shots, nifty dimes and historically significant scoring outbursts are indicative of a rapidly rising star and one of the brightest young minds in the game.
And so, for Lillard, Rookie of the Year honors aren't the end. They're not the culmination of anything.
The award is merely a representative of something bigger. Of something better. Of a future star.
Whose future isn't far off.
*All stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
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