Biggest Improvements Damian Lillard Must Make in Sophomore 2013-14 Season

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Biggest Improvements Damian Lillard Must Make in Sophomore 2013-14 Season
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Damian Lillard didn't look like a rookie last season—not based on his play or the way he carried himself. 

At 22 years old, Lillard was a polished first-year guard. He had finished second in the nation in scoring the year before at Weber State, turning the corner big-time his senior season.

In 2012-13, Lillard averaged 19 points and 6.5 assists on 36.8 percent shooting from three. Offensively, the transition appeared seamless. Lillard matches up physically and fundamentally with just about any point guard in the league.

But there are still some wrinkles in his game that could use a little ironing out. For the Portland Trail Blazers to bounce back from a 33-win season, and for Lillard to avoid the sophomore wall, he'll have a few adjustments to make this year on both sides of the ball. 

 

Defense

Lillard's most glaring weaknesses were flashed on the defensive end, which shouldn't be a shock when you consider the competition he faced in the Big Sky conference. 

Making the jump from guarding mid-major point guards to covering guys like Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and Ty Lawson on a regular basis—let's just say it takes getting used to. 

Lillard got torched at times last season, offering little resistance as a perimeter ball-stopper. 

Take a look at what some of the Western Conference point guards did to him. These are point guards who went head-to-head with Lillard at least three times last season: 

PGs who Faced Lillard Three-or-More Times  Points Per Game Assists Per Game
Ty Lawson 19.8 9.0
Russell Westbrook 26.0  6.5
Jeremy Lin 15.5 7.5
Greivis Vasquez 17.7  8.0
Stephen Curry 25.0  7.7 
Darren Collison 10.8  9.3 
Goran Dragic 13.7  10.3
Mike Conley 15.0  7.0

 

Lillard made it easy for many opposing point guards to operate. He was vulnerable to contact or misdirection and struggled to maintain position between his man and the rim.

Even if they weren't scoring, Lillard's men were consistently able to generate some type of offense. 

 

Anticipating, Avoiding and Fighting Through Screens

Point guards see a ton of ball screens at the pro level. They have to know how to use them on offense and how to avoid them on defense. 

Lillard struggled with the latter. By allowing himself to get easily screened, the man he guarded was granted space to make his move. 

Here's a perfect example of Lillard making it easy for the offense. 

Below, we have Lillard defending Stephen Curry in the corner. Notice Klay Thompson to right, ready to set a screen on Lillard so Curry can flash to the ball:

Curry runs Lillard right into Thompson. Lillard gets caught up for a split second, which is all it takes for Curry to shake free. And just like that, the Warriors have the offensive advantage. 

Now, another defender, in this case J.J. Hickson, has to step up as the help and challenge Curry. This leaves Hickson's defender, David Lee, wide open for a bucket in the lane:

Lillard can't make himself that easy to lose. He has to anticipate and survey his surroundings. Lillard should be aware of potential screeners around him, as well as the route he must take to avoid them.

Though it was David Lee who got the easy basket, it was Lillard's poor defense on Curry that allowed Lee to get open.  

Here's another example of Lillard's defensive vulnerability, except this time his man has the ball the whole time. 

With the fear of getting beat to the rack, Lillard sags back a bit with Curry bringing up the ball. 

But in doing so, Lillard makes himself easy to eliminate from the play. David Lee simply steps right in front of him, giving his ball-handler a wide-open look for a jumper.  

That's just too easy. Curry didn't even have to work for this one.  

As a one-on-one defender, Lillard has the lateral quickness and focus. But his defensive IQ is lacking. Studying film and getting in reps will improve his awareness on this side of the ball. 

 

Turnovers, Shot Selection and Controlling Urges

Lillard averaged 6.5 assists to go with three turnovers a game, a ratio he won't be highlighting as a rookie achievement. 

He's got the tendency to try and make the hero pass at times, whether it's throwing a deep ball when nothing is there or trying to squeeze it through a crack. A lot of these are unforced errors he'll just have to cut down on. 

Some turnovers he makes are just a result of poor execution. 

This year, Lillard will have to work on his timing, particularly in the two-man game. With his lights-out jumper and stop-and-start quickness, Lillard should be a pick-and-roll nightmare by the time he's reached his peak. 

It would be nice to see him boost his assist rate up to around eight per game, even if that means sacrificing shots of his own. 

Check out the shot totals for Portland's top five guns. Lillard, the team's point guard, took the second-most shots on the team by a whopping 480-shot margin.  

2012-13 Shots Attempted Total Field Goals Attempted Field-Goal Attempts Per Game
LaMarcus Aldridge 17.8 1,318
Damian Lillard 15.7 1,288
Wesley Matthews 11.7 808
Nicolas Batum 11.4 833
J.J. Hickson 9.3 744

 

Though he was given the green light to score, Lillard sometimes got carried away. He has the ability to create his own shot and put points up in bunches, but as the point guard, Lillard must sometimes learn to restrain himself. 

He only shot 42.9 percent from the floor last season. Tightening his shot selection and passing on heat checks should improve his efficiency as a scorer and playmaker. 

  

Fast-Break Offense 

While Lillard is quick and decisive, he doesn't have that John Wall or Russell Westbrook-like explosiveness in the open floor. Therefore, he's not an easy-bucket machine in transition. 

Portland finished in the bottom half of the league in terms of pace and fast-break points. Given his crafty handle and sweet outside stroke, Lillard is more of a half-court facilitator than an up-and-down gunner. 

But at times last season, Lillard wasn't always able to take advantage on the break. 

Here's a textbook error that Lillard himself would have to admit to. Running the break, Lillard has numbers with him at half court. 

But instead of either slowing down and waiting for his receivers' routes to develop, he inexplicably picks up his dribble at the three-point line. In what seems like a panic move, Lillard dishes it out to a shooter who's ultimately forced to take a contested three-pointer—on a fast break. 

Though just one example, Lillard should work on becoming a more effective playmaker in the open floor. 

Overall, there's not much to really be concerned with. For a rookie, he excelled in just about every offensive facet of the game. 

There's no doubt Lillard will eventually emerge as one of the better point guards in this game. But to increase his value to the Blazers in 2013-14, he'll need to improve on defending the perimeter, executing as a facilitator and picking up those easy open-floor buckets. 

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