Usually, there is an adjustment period for rookies entering the NBA. For most, years of seasoning are before they pan out, and some just don’t have the talent to succeed at this level. Then there are those who immediately play the NBA game in an effortless manner. From Day One, they are hard to stop. Damian Lillard is the latest to look like a natural on the court, with the skillset to frustrate every opponent and be the cornerstone in Portland.
After knee problems forced Brandon Roy into what turned out to be a temporary retirement, the Trail Blazers became LaMarcus Aldridge’s team. He grew as a player, becoming The Man, but while he continues to produce at a high level Lillard is the new kid on the block, taking the spotlight away from the star power forward. This isn’t a bad thing for Aldridge. The All-Star isn’t playing second fiddle; he just has less responsibility and therefore less pressure on his shoulders. Lillard has been that good thus far, and with the athleticism, scoring ability, and court vision he possesses, it is hard to see him slowing down at any point.
Lillard, selected sixth overall in the 2012 NBA Draft out of Weber State, scored or assisted on all 14 points Portland scored in an overtime victory over James Harden’s Houston Rockets. This wasn’t an altogether surprising achievement by Lillard; it was, instead, fitting given how brilliant he has been thus far. In leading the Blazers to a 2-1 record, he has averaged 21 points, nine rebounds, and four assists per game. Against the Los Angeles Lakers in the season opener, he became the first rookie to score 23-plus points and dish 10-plus assists in a debut since LeBron James accomplished the feat in 2003.
For years, the Blazers have been trying to find a young point guard who could handle the reigns. Andre Miller was an unappreciated, crafty, durable veteran, but he needed a successor. The team gave up too quickly on Jerryd Bayless, but even he was too much of a scoring guard who lacked a pass-first mentality. They thought Raymond Felton was the answer, but that wasn’t the case. Elliot Williams was promising athletically, but injuries hurt his chances to be the franchise’s point guard, while Nolan Smith, in limited action, hasn’t impressed. Lillard has been a sight for sore eyes, with all the intangibles necessary to succeed for a long time in Blazers red and black.
He can score inside with a consistent explosive attack. He has tremendous range and isn’t afraid to launch from deep. And he has excellent court vision, looking for ways to both score and find teammates like Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, and Wesley Matthews. He runs the pick-and-roll well. He drives in and finds open Blazers on the perimeter. He can do it all. And everyone who watched him play knows it.
First-year Blazers head coach Terry Stotts runs the ideal style of play for Lillard to grow under. In Milwaukee, Stotts ran a very laid-back offense, letting his stars do what they liked in any situation with an emphasis on scoring quickly. With that mindset, he has given Lillard the green light to make plays for himself and others; whatever the 22-year-old sees fit whenever. The result has been efficient shooting–51 percent from two-point range, 37 percent from three-point range, and 90 percent from the free-throw line–with similar emphasis on helping the other four Blazers get equally high-percentage looks.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Terry Porter was like that for Portland. A three-game sample isn’t enough to put Lillard in the same conversation as the former star, but he has the tools to one day be rightfully included in his company. And that day may come very soon for a player who has already opened so many eyes and floored so many jaws.