When he arrived at the NBA combine earlier this month, Damian Lillard immediately went to work. While many of the rest of his fellow rookies lingered on the sideline, following their agents’ orders by refusing to participate in the on-court activities, Lillard did everything — and he did it very well.
The guard from tiny Weber State is expected to be the first point guard off the board Thursday night. The Cavs aren’t in the market for a point guard after selecting Kyrie Irving first overall last year, but they certainly seem impressed with Lillard.
General Manager Chris Grant scouted him during a game in Portland, Ore., last season when the Cavs were in town for a game against the Trail Blazers. Grant was one of a handful of NBA executives in attendance who watched Lillard make eight 3-pointers and score 38 points. Then Lillard said the Cavs sent a representative to his private workout on his home court shortly after the college season ended.
There is plenty to like about Lillard, who was named the Big Sky MVP both his sophomore and junior years and leaves school second in scoring with 1,934 points. He was overlooked coming out of Oakland, Calif., a hotbed for basketball, and has spent the past few years making up for it.
“A lot of people talk about me playing at a smaller school,” Lillard said. “This is the perfect opportunity to show I can play to the level of everybody else in the draft.”
Lillard dazzled at the combine with his ability to make shots. He averaged 24.5 points last season, which technically counted as his junior season despite it being his fourth year in school. He received a medical redshirt after a foot injury prevented him from playing in all but nine games during the 2010-11 season.
The redshirt gave him an extra season of eligibility, but Lillard chose instead to head for the NBA. He picked the right time to leave. One year after Irving, Brandon Knight, Kemba Walker and Jimmer Fredette were all taken in the top 10 of the draft, Lillard clearly stands out as the best in what is considered a weak crop of point guards.
He is assured of being a lottery pick and could go as high as No. 6 to the Trail Blazers.
“It’s a perfect year for me to come in,” Lillard said. “If it was a great class of point guards, it would’ve been harder for me coming from Weber State. It happened at the right time. I had a great year and it’s not the best class of point guards. It’s definitely a healthy situation for me.”
Lillard, who stands 6-foot-3, had a scorer’s mentality in college. He never averaged more than four assists per game in any season, but he said it’s because his team relied on him to score. He doesn’t believe that he’ll have any trouble fitting in and running an NBA offense, and at least a few league executives agree.
Three league officials polled on Lillard believe he’ll immediately be better than Knight, who was a combo guard who played point guard exclusively for the Detroit Pistons last season and averaged 12.8 points and 3.8 assists as a rookie. Knight finished eighth in Rookie of the Year balloting.
Lillard concedes that he feels the pressure sometimes of carrying on the tradition of Oakland point guards. Jason Kidd, Brian Shaw and Gary Payton were all guards who grew up on Oakland’s playgrounds before making it in the NBA. Now Lillard believes he’s next.
But all the attention he has received over the past few months has been startling. After living in relative anonymity as a two-star recruit coming out of high school, then playing in front of sparse crowds at Weber State, Lillard exploded into NBA circles last season. All of the attention was a bit overwhelming.
“It’s been crazy,” Lillard said. “In high school, I flew under the radar and in college I flew under the radar. Then this year, all of a sudden a lot of people are at my practices and calling me, agents and everything like that. I’ve never experienced anything like that before. It got out of hand for a little while and overwhelmed me a little bit.
“Once I realized it was all good attention, and it came with the territory for how successful I was, I accepted it. It was crazy, but it’s good to know I’m going in the right direction.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.