He may not be a headlining name like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George or Stephen Curry, but he'll have the opportunity to make himself known to more than the Portland Trail Blazers faithful and the hardcore NBA fans who have been following Rip City all year.
More casual basketball watchers might have caught Lillard once or twice during a nationally televised game, but that's not nearly enough to capture the full extent of the dynamic point guard's game. This weekend in New Orleans will change that.
After all, Lillard is becoming the first player in NBA history to suit up in each of the five major All-Star competitions in the same weekend. Oh, and he's hosting a rap battle as well, because he wouldn't otherwise be busy enough:
This isn't the classic case of biting off more than you can chew. He's receiving support in his endeavors from fellow NBA stars, and he himself claims that he's capable of excellence in each competition:
George and Lillard are correct.
He can pull this off, and it gives him plenty of chances to put his signature on the New Orleans-based event. But don't wait until the weekend to figure out everything you need to know about Lillard; familiarize yourself beforehand.
Here, I'll help you out.
Where's He From?
Lillard was born in Oakland, Calif., and he spent all of his formative years right there on the West Coast. High school was an interesting adventure for the point guard, as he bounced from school to school in search of playing time and an opportunity to break out.
Although he played quite well during his senior season, which was spent at Oakland High School, he wasn't exactly a big-name recruit. Scout.com only gave him a 2-star designation, writing the following about the future Weber State standout:
Lillard is one of the elite point guards in the west for 2008. He's got a good, strong frame, with good quickness, and a very nice stroke to the stripe. He's got a solid, not great, handle. He's more of a scoring lead guard than a distributor, but his feel for the game is above average and he plays unselfishly.
Not a single basketball powerhouse showed even cursory interest in Lillard. Saint Mary's, San Diego State, Santa Clara and SMU are probably the closest things to "powerhouses" in terms of schools that pursued him, and none of them comes even close to earning such a status.
Weber State it was, and Lillard made the best of his situation.
He broke out during his sophomore season, averaging 19.9 points and 3.6 assists per game and earning a pair of honors: Big Sky Conference Player of the Year and an honorable mention for All-American status.
A foot injury derailed his third season with the Wildcats, but he would make up for it during his final year at the collegiate level. Lillard was right in the thick of the scoring race throughout the entire season, finishing with averages of 24.5 points and 4.0 assists.
According to Sports-Reference.com, he finished his Weber State career as the Big Sky career leader in PER, offensive rating and offensive win shares, and he also helped his team achieve quite a bit of success. While the Wildcats never made the NCAA tournament during his tenure, they at least won a lot of games and were put on the national map.
It wasn't until his senior season that he really started earning attention from NBA scouts. You can see how his draft stock progressed throughout 2012, thanks to DraftExpress.com's mock draft history graph:
Talk about a meteoric ascent.
In just one season, Lillard went from the realm of the undrafted to being talked about as the projected No. 6 pick in the 2012 NBA draft, which was exactly where he was selected by the Portland Trail Blazers.
The rest of the story is fairly well known from that point on—Lillard won Rookie of the Year in decisive fashion, and he's gone on to make the All-Star team in his second professional go-round.
What's His Game Like?
When scouting Lillard midway through his final year at Weber State, Walker Beeken wrote the following for DraftExpress.com:
The large emphasis of the pick-and-roll game in today's NBA bodes well for Lillard, as he's shown to be very effective as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations. His ability to smoothly pull up off the dribble from deep range makes it difficult for his defenders to go underneath the screen, while his burst off the dribble allows him to turn the corner quickly and get into the paint.
Nothing could've been more accurate.
Though Lillard still struggles on the defensive end of the court, he's an offensive wizard. A dominant pick-and-roll player, his game is completely predicated on his ability to knock down pull-up jumpers with high frequency.
According to NBA.com's SportVU data, there are 44 players in the Association who take at least five pull-up jumpers per game, which the site defines as attempts from outside 10 feet that come after one or more dribbles. In other words, they aren't close-range shots, and they aren't catch-and-shoot opportunities.
Of those 44, only three players have posted an effective field-goal percentage on pull-ups of at least 50 percent. These are naturally low-percentage looks, so doing so is quite impressive.
Those players? Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Lillard.
The first two are commonly thought of as premier shooters in basketball, and it's time we started thinking of the Weber State product in the same vein. He stands out in particular as a three-point marksman, as he's drilling 38.3 percent of his pull-up tries from downtown while taking 3.4 of them per game.
To put that in perspective, there are only 16 players in the league pulling up at least twice per contest from beyond the arc; of those, just five shoot a higher percentage than Lillard.
Let's take a look at the top gunners who qualify:
|Pull-Up Dominance, In Sets of 3|
|Player||Pull-Up 3s Per Game||Pull-Up 3P%|
|NBA.com's SportVU data|
It's hard to argue against Durant and Curry—again—but Lillard stands out in his own way. Those extra attempts per game, when compared to the non-superstars and Kyrie Irving in the table, really work in his favor.
There's more to the point guard's game than that, though.
While his shooting off the dribble is the clear highlight, he's also an adept distributor who is starting to minimize his turnovers while he attacks the basket. You probably could've guessed that he's an elite athlete, simply because he's in the Slam Dunk Contest, and that's exactly correct.
Lillard is a captivating player because he can explode in the scoring column at any moment. The cold-blooded floor general routinely lights up the scoreboard at the end of games, and he's only getting better.
With his ceiling tempered by the amount of time he spent in college—Lillard is 23 years old and will turn 24 this summer—it's not difficult to imagine him failing to make All-Star team after All-Star team throughout the prime of his career.
He doesn't have the upside necessary to become an MVP candidate and reach that vaunted level occupied by a handful of players, but similar to Tony Parker, it's not inconceivable that he hangs around in the "best point guard in the NBA" conversation for years.
What Can You Expect in These Contests?
Lillard is in all five major contests featured during All-Star weekend, but that's not good enough. Can you expect him to win any of them?
B/R's Jim Cavan says yes:
You can bet that Lillard is the early favorite to take home the hardware for the Rising Stars Challenge, which he won last year. Ditto the Skills Competition, where his peerless combination of speed, quickness and shooting should bode well for a deep run.
I both agree and disagree with Cavan.
While I'm perfectly fine with predicting him to win the Skills Competition, thanks to the blend of tools mentioned up above, the Rising Stars Challenge is a different story. Calling him a co-favorite is one thing, but Anthony Davis prevents him from being the sole holder of that status.
The Unibrow and Lillard will be in a class of their own when the rookies and sophomores take the field, but it should be Davis who has the advantage. And after Kenneth Faried won MVP honors last year, we can't exactly call this a competition tailored toward little men.
Next up will be the three-point contest, and he's dealing with a rather tough field:
|Arron Afflalo||Orlando Magic||4.4||42.5|
|Bradley Beal||Washington Wizards||4.8||43.0|
|Kyrie Irving||Cleveland Cavaliers||4.9||36.9|
|Joe Johnson||Brooklyn Nets||5.0||39.3|
|Marco Belinelli||San Antonio Spurs||3.5||44.8|
|Stephen Curry||Golden State Warriors||8.2||41.5|
|Damian Lillard||Portland Trail Blazers||7.0||40.4|
|Kevin Love||Minnesota Timberwolves||6.2||37.0|
Lillard certainly has a chance, though it'll be awfully difficult to pick against Curry, who is on fire heading into the break. It's not as difficult a decision in the Slam Dunk Contest, though.
We can just go ahead and count the point guard out right now, though I hope he proves me wrong and provides us with a slam to remember.
Not only is he competing against Paul George, John Wall, Terrence Ross, Ben McLemore and Harrison Barnes—all of whom have more acrobatic highlights to their names—but he's doing so after wearing himself out with all the other competitions. Tired legs are not indicative of success in the marquee event.
Finally, there's the All-Star Game itself.
I wouldn't dream of predicting that Lillard will win MVP at the expense of the other stars in the field, but he'll at least put on a show when he's on the court. Recently, I ranked him as the No. 9 player in the game, at least in terms of watchability, and that hasn't changed.
Lillard is going to make his All-Star weekend one to remember.
You might think you're going to get tired of the Rip City point guard, but you won't. He's that entertaining, and he'll blow you away from start to finish if you haven't taken the time to tune into many Portland games throughout the 2013-14 season.
Then again, he'll do the same even if Portland has regularly graced your television screen.
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