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Getting the point

On Sports


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Damian Lillard is the early leader for the NBA rookie of the year award, but he is far from satisfied with his play at point guard for the Trail Blazers.Some ups, some downs. That’s the way it is for every rookie in the NBA — even one with as much talent as Damian Lillard.

The Trail Blazers’ much-acclaimed rookie point guard couldn’t have gotten out of the blocks any cleaner, with at least 20 points and seven assists in each of his first three games. In the NBA’s 65-year history, only the great Oscar Robertson had achieved that to start his career.

Since then, bumps have surfaced. There was the 2-for-13 shooting performance in a loss at Dallas. And the 5-for-18 in Monday’s loss to Atlanta that left the No. 6 pick in the 2012 draft wondering what happened to his touch.

“Those nights are going to happen,” Portland coach Terry Stotts philosophized.

Stotts is right. Nobody is growing impatient with Lillard, the best thing the Blazers have going as they point toward a future they hope will lead to big things.

With Tuesday’s 103-86 victory at Sacramento came a strong sample of the good stuff. Lillard pushed the “on” button, collecting 22 points on 7-for-10-shooting — 5 for 6 from beyond the 3-point stripe — and nine assists in a dominant performance.

Every time he steps onto the court, Lillard makes an impression. It was that way even as the Hawks built a huge lead, then held off a Portland rally to close out a victory down the stretch on a night when the rookie wasn’t on top of his game.

“He’s going to be special — wait, let me change that,” says Atlanta’s No. 1 assistant coach, Lester Conner. “He’s special right now.”

Conner, the former Oregon State great, has a connection with Lillard. They’re both from Oakland, as are such illustrious point guards as Gary Payton and Jason Kidd.

“The kid has no weaknesses,” Conner says. Atlanta head coach Larry Drew “said the same thing when we were going over our scouting report for Portland. Point guard is the hardest position to learn in the NBA. He has it down. He is playing already like a second- or third-year pro.”

If there is a quality Conner likes most, it is Lillard’s toughness.

“He’s not afraid to drive into traffic, shake it in there and get something done,” says Conner, whose 12-year NBA career ended in 1995. “He has great range on his shot. He makes his free throws. He competes at both ends — a little more on the offensive end than the defensive, but he takes on the defensive challenge.

“And you always see him under control. He plays with a lot of confidence.”

That’s the thing I’ve appreciated most in Lillard during his first two weeks as a Blazer. The 6-3, 195-pounder displays uncommon poise for a rookie. He doesn’t force things. He swings the ball to the right teammates. On the other hand, he is not afraid to take the big shot, even if he has not been hitting on a given night.

“His court demeanor is one of his strengths,” Stotts says. “He’s unflappable. He’s a great competitor, and he wants to be really good.

“People were putting his first three games in historical perspective, but he’s not looking at it like that. He’s saying, ‘I can play so much better.’ ”

Lillard’s drive and discipline comes in no small part from his upbringing in a lower-class section of Oakland. Gang activity tempted all the kids of his and the surrounding neighborhoods, but parents Hugh Lillard and Gina Johnson didn’t let him get swallowed in the dangerous environment.

“It was rough where I grew up in east Oakland,” Lillard says. “There was a lot of stuff going on. A lot of people I grew up with ended up doing things that hurt them in the long run. Luckily for me, I had family and people steering me in the right direction.”

Though Lillard’s parents never married, they lived together through most of his childhood years. They demanded comportment that helped their son’s performance in life as well as basketball.

“They had a great influence,” Lillard says. “There was a standard I had to live up to, on and off the court. I had to be the type of person they raised me to be.

“If I wasn’t, there was going to be something said about it. I took that same attitude onto the court.”

Lillard’s desire is what separates him from most other young players, Portland assistant David Vanterpool says.

“It’s easy for players to say, ‘I want to be the best I can be.’ With him, it’s not lip service,” Vanterpool says. “It’s really how he feels, what he believes in. You can see it in his work ethic, his determination, his demeanor. All those things go into it. What resonates for him is, more than anything, he really wants to be great.”

Vanterpool works daily with Lillard both on and off the court. They watch games and game video. They talk about his approach and the mental aspects of the game.

“The good part about basketball is you don’t have to be on the court to be getting better,” Vanterpool says. “He understands that. There’s so much extra work to put along with the physical stuff. He is constantly preparing. That’s what is going to help him stay ahead of the curve when it comes to learning.”

The blend of physical talent and mental acuity gives Lillard a chance to forge his way to greatness in the NBA.

It’s early, but Lillard is the leader in the clubhouse for the NBA’s rookie of the year award. He leads rookies in scoring (18.4) and assists (6.6) and is shooting well from 3-point range (.408) and the free-throw line (.821). Only his field-goal percentage (.430) is suspect — but Stotts doesn’t want him defined by that.

“When so much is made of shooting, it colors the view of whether a person played a good game or not,” Stotts says. “The games (in which) Damian has shot poorly, he hasn’t necessarily played poorly.”

Fair enough. There is plenty of room to grow for Lillard, only 22 but blessed with a maturity beyond his years. It’s not his team yet — LaMarcus Aldridge is still the man — but that time is coming.

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