Damian Lillard and Anthony Davis were without a doubt the darlings of the 2012 NBA draft. That’s not a knock on Andre Drummond, Harrison Barnes, Bradley Beal or Dion Waiters—it’s a testament to just how good the two were in their rookie seasons.
Davis, the consensus first-overall pick, showed us that he’s a dominant defensive force with an emerging offensive game. Lillard, the mid-major chosen sixth, became just the fourth player in history to earn a unanimous Rookie of the Year selection.
Entering their sophomore seasons, each fanbase has reason to rejoice, but the question is: Which potential star will shine the brightest in 2014?
*All advanced statistics are provided by 82games.com.
Whether it’s fair or not, Lillard and Davis will forever be linked by the 2012 draft. The two youngsters may play completely different positions, but that doesn’t mean we won’t track their progress as their careers evolve.
The truth is that this is a win-win situation for each organization. The Portland Trail Blazers desperately needed a franchise point guard, and it became clear early in the process that they had just that in the prospect from Weber State. The New Orleans Pelicans chose a once-in-a-decade defender who showed that his adjustment to the NBA isn’t going to be a problem.
Neither team would trade its star, and that’s something we can all agree upon at this point.
But when comparing the two entering their sophomore years, you’d be remiss to overlook Lillard. Supporters of Davis will quickly point to his stats per 36 (or 48) minutes. They’ll also note that Lillard played the most minutes in the NBA during his rookie campaign, and that his production was simply a result of inflation.
I say, hold that thought.
My question is this: When did being productive for 38.6 minutes per game become a bad thing? In his first season, Lillard was given a role that’s foreign to most rookies. He was asked to be on the floor as much as he could handle, and quite frankly, he excelled every step of the way.
Davis, while he was beyond impressive during his rookie year, only managed to play in 64 games, averaging 28.8 minutes per contest.
Nobody is going to claim that the Pelicans franchise player is injury prone after one season, but it’s easier to trust Lillard to stay on the court in year two, as he’s more than proven he can handle the load.
When looking at these competitors, it’s clear that Davis has the edge over Lillard defensively. On the other hand, Lillard is an offensive specialist, and the versatility in his game makes him one of the most entertaining young guards around.
With the ball in his hands, Lillard plays with the poise of a veteran. He quickly began drawing double teams in his first season, yet he adjusted and was able to trust his teammates game in and game out.
Now, with the Blazers having acquired a real-life bench for 2013-14, the point guard has even more weapons to utilize, and he’ll earn rest that should help him become even more efficient.
As good of a facilitator as Lillard has proven to be, his scoring is what makes him special. With his knack for scoring around—and above—the rim, he’s the epitome of today’s ultra-athletic point guard.
What separates him, however, is a deadly jumper. Not all great athletes at the position have that, which makes the Derrick Rose and Chauncey Billups comparisons that we’ve heard thus far a possible reality.
If asked who the better two-way player is right now, the answer hands down is Davis. The big man showed that he can handle the ball throughout the 2012-13 season, and he proved that his face-up game is at least noteworthy at this stage in his development.
However, what’s also noteworthy is that Lillard is devoting himself to improving on defense. According to Casey Holdahl of Trailblazers.com, the point guard benefited from working under Tom Thibodeau at the Team USA mini-camp.
Nobody on earth will call Lillard a better defender than Davis, but the numbers show that the point guard has potential. He held his opponents to a PER of 15.5 per 48 minutes—a number that is .08 below his own.
Davis, on the other hand, allowed opposing power forwards to record a PER of 21.1 per 48 minutes, which ended up being .07 better than his.
Numbers aside, Lillard is attempting to defend some of the best athletes in the game on a nightly basis, and he recognizes the need to improve on that side of the floor. According to The Oregonian’s Jason Quick, the youngster planned to work with Hall of Famer Gary Payton over the offseason. He also stated that his motivation came from his doubters, proving just how driven he can be.
Any progress Lillard makes on defense will be a step in the right direction, but while a lockdown defender is useful at the end of games, so is a lights-out shooter.
When we talk about Lillard’s poise, we’re not just talking about the first quarter. Rip City had been missing a true closer since Brandon Roy’s departure, and while LaMarcus Aldridge can be that guy in certain situations, fourth quarters in Portland became “Lillard Time” for a reason.
Teams like the Pelicans, Houston Rockets and New York Knicks learned what Lillard can do the hard way. He was 24th in the NBA in crunch time scoring, and while Davis isn’t expected to play hero ball, he was just 70th in that category (defined as “fourth quarter or overtime, less than five minutes or left, neither team ahead by more than five points”).
As a rookie, the Trail Blazer guard made a habit of finishing strong. Entering his second season, he’s going to be as confident as ever, which is a bad sign for opponents late in games.
Every team needs a leader, and while both Portland and New Orleans have theirs, it’s the Blazers who have the top star of the 2012 draft class.
As the floor general in Rip City, Lillard’s net value on the court was 10.9 in 2012-13. That was the top mark on the team by a relative long shot, and it put to shame Davis’ number of negative 0.3.
Davis’ fans love to point to the PER as the holy grail of statistics. The big man finished with a 21.80—the 15th best mark in The Association—while Lillard recorded a 16.45.
But think about this: Lillard’s PER is better than what Rose, Russell Westbrook and John Wall posted in their first seasons. All three of those players made jumps of at least two points in their sophomore years, and it’s not unreasonable to think Lillard will do the same.
Who will go on to have the better career has yet to be determined, but Davis and Lillard are surely both going to be stars. Neither the Pelicans nor the Trail Blazers can go wrong (barring injury), but at this point, Portland has a player who has earned the slight edge.
Lillard was the Rookie of the Year in 2012-13 for a reason, and if everything goes according to plan, he’ll be the face of the sophomore class in 2014.
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