Damian Lillard Riding Awesome Wave, but Is He an Elite Point Guard?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 18, 2013

USA Today

On the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately grade scale, Damian Lillard's scoring off the charts.

With 59 points, 17 assists, 10 rebounds and a pair of game-winning shots over his last two games, the reigning Rookie of the Year has shifted the conversation from "Wow" over to "Just stop it."

Ask fans of the Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers how they feel about the rising Portland Trail Blazers floor general. Better yet, ask them about the player they know all too well now—Damian "Bleeping" Lillard.

He is the embodiment of a sports cliche, a big-time player making big-time plays.

But whether he's an elite talent is a different conversation. It's one worth having given his production, but it's also one of the few NBA clubs that Lillard still finds himself on the outside looking in.

For now.


Finding Consistency

His last two trips to the hardwood have both captured his flair for the dramatic

On Dec. 15, he worked his magic in Motown. After skating around a LaMarcus Aldridge screen, he put Pistons guard Rodney Stuckey in the spin cycle before closing the contest with a silky smooth fadeaway jumper.

Two nights later, he was spurring a collective groan from the Cleveland faithful.

In a showdown with 2011-12 Rookie of the Year Kyrie Irving, Lillard was laughing last.

This one was no byproduct of Blazers coach Terry Stotts' trickery. There was no screen to be set, no real diagramming at all. Just one man with off-the-bus range and ice water running through his veins.

While the drama felt the same, the buildup couldn't have been more different.

Lillard was a volume contributor against the Pistons. He racked up 23 points in just under 41 minutes, but shot 6-of-21 from the field and 0-of-7 from distance.

His production was cleaner and far more lethal inside Quicken Loans Arena. He dropped 36 points on Irving's Cavs, hitting 11-of-23 on the night and a scorching 8-of-12 from beyond the arc. And he touched far more than just the scoring column:

Those wild swings in efficiency are nothing new. One night, he'll be human-torch-mode Stephen Curry. The next time out he's quantity-over-quality Brandon Jennings. Rarely does he spend much time hovering in the middle ground.

Those feast-or-famine box scores have made his stat line tough to interpret. He's an elite three-point artist in every sense of the term (42.2 percent, 24th among players with at least 50 attempts) but a middling contributor inside the arc (39.9 percent).

He has too much explosiveness, too many ball-handling tricks and too soft a shooting stroke to struggle off the dribble the way he does. He's made 201 drives to the basket, but finished only 31.1 percent of those shots, via NBA.com's SportVU player tracking data. For comparison, that's less than half the success Jeremy Lin has found off the bounce (64.2).

Nov 5, 2013; Portland, OR, USA; Houston Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin (7) drives to the basket past Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard (0) at the Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports
Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Spo

As a setup man, he's mediocre at best. With 5.8 assists a night, he shares the category's No. 23 spot with Houston Rockets scoring guard James Harden.

The point guard position has evolved. Creating individual scoring chances can be just as important as finding a teammate, depending on the roster makeup. Lillard's struggling to consistently perform at an elite level in either respect.

But polishing his on-court production is just one of the items on his elite checklist. Playing this sport, and this position in particular, has never been all about the numbers.


Becoming a Leader

It's not always easy to tell a player's background just by watching them.

But Lillard's Oakland roots have a way of following him out onto the court. He attacks with Gary Payton's tenacity and plays with Jason Kidd's flash.

He oozes quiet confidence. He trusts his talents like few others have.

PORTLAND, OR - DECEMBER 2:  Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers celebrates a play against the Indiana Pacers on December 2, 2013 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downlo
Cameron Browne/Getty Images

But that same level of confidence hasn't carried over to all his teammates.

Lillard's in a tough spot. He's a second-year player leading an elite-level team. (If you're not buying the Blazers as elites, I can't help you—22-4 speaks for itself.)

He's also not the obvious leader of the franchise.

LaMarcus Aldridge is an eight-year vet enjoying one of the finest seasons of his career (23.6 points, 11.0 rebounds). Wesley Matthews is a two-way force carrying the same chip on his shoulder as any undrafted find. Robin Lopez is the best kind of garbage man money can buy.

Still, Lillard's voice is the one I'd like to hear as the loudest inside that locker room.

With his length and athleticism, Nicolas Batum is a lit fuse away from stardom. Thomas Robinson is in dire need of the confidence that fueled his All-American rise back at Kansas.

PORTLAND, OR - JANUARY 16:  Nicolas Batum #88 and Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers sit on the bench during the game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on January 16, 2013 at the Rose Garden Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User express
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Lillard's not a miracle worker, despite what his clutch performances say. He can't elevate players that aren't ready to be lifted.

But he can make those challenges, rattle cages and spark fires.

Elite point guards don't settle. They make demands, call out things that need to be called out. When's the last time Chris Paul held a punch? The next one will be the first.

There's just a different aura around Lillard than what I see from most of his teammates. This realization that he does belong. This desire to not just beat his competition, but to destroy them.

He has a killer instinct in a career field where that trait is welcomed, valued even. He needs to make sure his teammates get that same taste for blood.


Knocking on the Door

Apr 16, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard (0) drives against Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul (3) during the game at the Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Look, the ladder to elite status is incredibly long with no real margin for error.

The simple phrase, to me at least, signifies the best of the best. It's that rarefied air where floor generals like Paul, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook and—when healthyDerrick Rose exist. That uber-exclusive club that Deron Williams is scratching and clawing to get back into, that Rajon Rondo hopes to sneak inside when he returns.

There's a new breed of point guards eagerly awaiting their membership cards.

Stephen Curry (24.3 points, 9.0 assists) might already have his in the mail. If not, he's a prolonged postseason push away from that special delivery.

Lillard finds himself among that next crop of hopeful elites. He's sitting alongside rising stars like Kyrie Irving and John Wall, players with the talent to crash that party but still with something missing from their resumes.

Lillard and Irving can be dominant scorers, but both have struggled finding sustained success. Wall's stat line is intriguing (19.5 points, 9.3 assists), but it's still absent a reliable perimeter shot, and he hasn't exactly made the Washington Wizards anything special.

If the grade scale seems strict, it should. That's what separates good players from great ones, great ones from elites.

Lillard is on his way to joining that group, but he still has some work to do to get there.

Don't let the talking heads fool you; elite status isn't available for overnight shipping. And that's actually a good thing.

That means Lillard's journey will continue featuring these gems. We'll get more cold-blooded daggers, more soaring point totals and more are-you-kidding-me shooting displays.

For now, we'll have to "settle" for those other "e" words that define him: electric, explosive, exciting.

So take a page out of his book and put another "e" word to good use—enjoy it. Even if he's not quite elite yet, he's still one of the most entertaining players in today's game.


*Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.



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