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Blazers rookies Lillard, Freeland, Leonard show confidence

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Rookie point guard Damian Lillard answers questions at Monday's Trail Blazers media day.Trail Blazers rookie point guard Damian Lillard already is being heralded as the present and future of the team’s backcourt.

After the Blazers took him with the sixth pick in the draft out of Weber State, Lillard set the NBA Summer League on fire, winning co-MVP honors with 26.5 points, 5.3 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game.

Lillard knows that once the season begins, he will be challenged even more.

“It’ll be a huge adjustment,” Lillard said Monday at Blazers media day. “In Summer League, it was NBA level players, but it wasn’t All-Stars like I’m going to come across in the regular season."

But he is confident about what he can do this season.

"It will be a jump, but it’s nothing that I won’t be able to handle," he says.

Lillard, who has been named Portland's starting point guard, is considered by many to be the leading rookie of the year candidate. He is using those expectations as motivation.

“When people talk more about you, that’s just more to live up to,” Lillard said. “I’ve got to keep working and get up to the point where people think I can be. If they think I can be rookie of the year, then that makes me want to work toward that. I always have something to prove.”

Lillard realizes that the road can be rocky for a rookie.

“I know it’s going to come, just because I’ve played 30- game seasons and I didn’t have to travel as much,” he said. “It’s a whole other level of competition. I know there will be growing pains, bumps in the road."

He says he is prepared for that, though, and believes he can handle any adversity.

"I’ve had adversity before," he said, "so I don’t see why I’d back down now.”

• Rookie Joel Freeland comes to Portland after being a force in the Spanish ACB League. The 6-10 Freeland, who hails from Great Britain, is remaining humble as he enters training camp.

“I’m assuming that I’m just going to come in and do what I can to earn a position on the team, and hopefully the hard work will pay off,” Freeland said. “All I can do is play the way I play, play the way I know and learn. I can’t do any more than that.”

Freeland’s size and build gives the Blazers the option of using him at center or power forward.

“If I’ve got a smaller guy against me, I can put him under the basket, if I have a bigger guy against me, I can play face up,” Leonard said. “That’s how I like to play. I’m versatile and just read what I have.”

•Â Rookie center Meyers Leonard, 7-1, has been in Portland for a month. He says some people look confused when they see him walking around town.

“There are still a few instances where people look at me and they’re not sure whether I’m just some random really tall guy or if I’m who they think I am,” Leonard said, laughing.

The 20-year-old out of Illinois was the No. 11 pick in the draft. As for whether he could be a starter right away, Leonard is hesitant to make predictions.

“I wouldn’t jump the gun and say that,” Leonard said. “It’s all about who wants to come in, work the hardest, learn and show that they care the most. If the opportunity presents itself, I’m a competitor. I’m going to go out there and give it my all.

"Am I ready? Am I not ready? I don’t know that answer. Coaches don’t know that answer. Nobody knows that answer yet. It’s up in the air, but I’m going to come every day and work as hard as possible and try to prove myself.”

Centers in Portland have had awful luck with injuries — as exemplified by the catastrophe that was Greg Oden.

“It concerns me zero percent — not at all,” Leonard said. “God has a plan for everyone. As long as I take care of my body like I have been, play as hard as I can, what’s going to happen is what’s going to happen. I’m not concerned about it in the least. Knock on wood, pray and hope I stay healthy.”