Why Damian Lillard Will Avoid the Dreaded Sophomore Slump Next Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 22, 2013

Damian Lillard ran away with the Rookie of the Year Award last season, but he nearly ran himself ragged in the process. Thanks to improved bench support, the Portland Trail Blazers' second-year stud is likely to sprint out to an even better 2013-14 campaign.

According to Sean Highkin of USA Today, Lillard felt the effects of his league-high 3,167 minutes last season. Lillard said: "Sometimes when you're out there (playing) so many minutes, your body can wear down. So you're not always productive at the highest levels because you might be worn down."

Lillard's not technically complaining, but he seems to be offering a diplomatic version of "I was dying out there." It was clear that the Blazers' nonexistent bench was not only hurting the team in the standings, but also taking a toll on the team's best young player.

Now that Portland has brought in rookie C.J. McCollum and Mo Williams to shore up the backcourt, Lillard might actually be able to take a break every once in a while. A look at the numbers proves he definitely could have used one last season.


Hidden Fatigue

Most rookies hit the wall midway through their first 82-game season, but Lillard seemed to barrel through it. If you only looked at his per-game statistics, you'd certainly assume that the Weber State product was immune to fatigue. Superficially, Lillard's pre- and post-All-Star-break numbers indicate that he actually got better as the year wore on.

But a deeper dive shows that, while Lillard's per-game averages and offensive numbers trended upward after the break, his defense went from "pretty bad" to "absolutely horrible." According to NBA.com, Lillard's defensive rating went from 106 before the All-Star break to 109.2 after.

Viewed cynically, we know which end of the floor Lillard picked to take his breaks.

Staying in a crouched defensive position is physically taxing, so it's no surprise that in watching film of Lillard late in the season, he was standing upright far too often. Maybe the habit is a flaw in his defensive fundamentals, but exhaustion could have played a role as well.

Lillard is a quick offensive player, but his lateral mobility was very poor on D last season precisely because he was caught in an unathletic, upright position far too often. Guys that had no business beating him off the dribble got to their spots with surprising ease.

You can see in this still that Williams (who'll be Lillard's teammate this year) has started a drive to his right. Instead of getting low and moving his feet to cut off Williams' strong hand, Lillard is basically standing straight up. 

In addition, Lillard's upright stance left him constantly off balance, which forced him into awkward backpedals on straight-ahead drives. Jrue Holiday easily got Lillard on his heels in a game on March 18, and with the slightest bump from the bigger guard, Lillard went sprawling backward.

That's not a flop; it's what happens when an off-balance defender can't get low enough to regain leverage.

Lillard also reached a bit too often on defense last season, which was yet another tell-tale sign of fatigue.

The good news is that Lillard is aware of his flaws and is trying to correct them.

Highkin wrote: 

Lillard wants to match his front office's roster improvements with developments of his own. His excellent offensive performance diverted attention from his defensive weaknesses. Lillard plans to work on it later this summer with Hall of Famer Gary Payton, the only point guard to win the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award.

Working with Payton, who will immediately notice Lillard's bad tendencies, should be hugely beneficial for the young guard. We can definitely start to worry about Lillard's defense if his troublesome habits persist after the Glove's expert instruction, but there's every reason to believe that his flaws will diminish with better fundamentals and more rest.

In part, Lillard won't endure a sophomore slump because his defense could hardly be worse than it was in his rookie year. And, offensively, the guy's game is beyond reproach.


Offensively, Less Is More

Few players come into the league with as much offensive polish as Lillard.

He displayed an advanced feel for scoring and seemed to come preprogrammed with every veteran trick in the book. A deft Eurostep, the ability to change pace effectively and even wrong-footed takeoffs that would make Manu Ginobili smile were all part of Lillard's arsenal from day one.

From a team perspective, he displayed top-end skills as a pick-and-roll operator, ranking in the top-10 percent of all NBA players in those sets, according to Synergy.

Lillard's jumper is effortless, reliable and dangerous from well beyond the three-point arc. With better shot selection and fresher legs, expect him to approach the 40-percent mark from long range next season.


Sophomore Surge

If the raw production dips a bit next year, don't assume that Lillard is struggling. That'll be a natural side effect of a (hopefully) decreased minute allotment. Chances are, as Lillard's counting numbers decline slightly, his rate stats will spike.

Of course, it's also possible that Lillard's numbers increase across the board, despite less playing time in 2013-14.

Forget a sophomore slump. Lillard could be in line for a surge.


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