Is Portland's sensational point guard the next ROY?

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Damian Lillard is reaping some rewards from his outstanding play as a rookie with the Trail Blazers, but he says his focus remains on winning games, getting better and the future of the team.While he has helped the Trail Blazers win games and stay on the fringe of the playoff race en route to an inevitable rookie of the year award this season, Damian Lillard has also built his personal brand on both a local and national level.

Portland’s high-profile point guard has made fans and friends with his outstanding play, humble style and classy demeanor this season, and it is reaping dividends for the former Weber State standout off the court.

Lillard signed a three-year endorsement contract with Adidas during Las Vegas Summer League and has the standard rookie trading-card deal. Agent Aaron Goodwin is working on several more endorsement opportunities that should come to fruition after the season.

“The sky is the limit for Damian” in terms of endorsements, says Goodwin, who reps Lillard along with his brother, Eric Goodwin. “He’s a different type of athlete, a new genre — a blue-collar guy most people didn’t know about a year ago. He relates to the common man. People identify with him as opposed to somebody who was a superstar from day one.

“Damian has played really well and established himself, so the market has been created for him. The next stage is the building of a real career. We’re looking for new opportunities for him, with the Cokes, the Gatorades, the McDonalds of the world. Those are the next step. It’s a process — and he realizes it’s a process — to build a portfolio that matches his personality.”

That sounds good to Lillard, who, unlike teammate LaMarcus Aldridge, embraces the idea of helping to promote products and companies.

“I hope to have some endorsements,” he says. “I’m a people type of guy. I’m a marketable guy. I have fun with that type of stuff. In a bigger market, there might be more money in it, but I’m not motivated by dollar signs. I just enjoy those type of things. I’d like to have a few national (endorsements), a couple of local things, also.”

It’s not something Lillard spends much time thinking about. The Blazers’ point man has focused on the task at hand — playing his best basketball. What a job he has done with that.

Lillard enters tonight’s game with New York leading NBA rookies in scoring (19.0), assists (6.4) and minutes played (38.5) and ranks among the top 10 in field-goal percentage (.431, ninth), 3-point percentage (.358, fifth), free-throw percentage (.860, second) and steals (1.0, second).

The Oakland native is a shoo-in to become the fourth rookie of the year in Portland’s 43-year history, joining Brandon Roy (2006-07), Sidney Wicks (1971-72) and Geoff Petrie (1970-71). And Lillard seems destined to become only the second unanimous ROY winner (along with the Clippers’ Blake Griffin in 2010-11) since San Antonio’s David Robinson in 1989-90.

Winning the award, Lillard allows, “would mean a lot. I’ve never been big on individual stuff. I really mean that. I’d be happy about it, but if I didn’t win, it wouldn’t bother me. I wouldn’t feel any less of a player.”

The award would be validation for all the hard work put in by the kid from a rough part of his hometown, “where most kids don’t get a chance to go to college, let alone play in the NBA,” he says. “To come from where I came from and a

mid-major school, with so much doubt through my whole career ... “I mean, I didn’t get recruited until the summer before 12th grade,” he says. “To be rookie of the year? That would mean a lot to me and to a bunch of other people that have been a big part of my life.

“If somebody asked me that five years ago, I’d have said, ‘What, you trying to clown, you trying to mess around?’ Not that I didn’t believe I could.”

Lillard has made believers of all those around him in the Portland organization.

“Every game he is getting better and better — every day, really,” small forward Nicolas Batum says. “He was good already. To be better than he was on day one is scary for the rest of the league.

“We knew he could score, he could pass. But as a rookie, he has had to run the team. It takes time to figure things out, but he has been a really quick learner. He’s doing a great job.”

Already, Lillard is the leader of the Blazers, even more so than two-time All-Star Aldridge.

“It’s unusual for a rookie, but he has pulled it off,” Batum says. “He has been so good in the clutch. Sometimes when we don’t know what to do, it’s like, ‘Just get him the ball, he’ll do something well.’

“We can’t say he’s a rookie now. He’s a rookie because he grabs some bags on the road trip, but that’s it. On the court, he’s not a rookie anymore.”

Lillard had 22 points and 11 assists in a brilliant debut on opening night against the Lakers. He hasn’t gotten those numbers every time out, but he is an even better player now.

“It’s hard to quantify how much he has improved,” says Portland’s first-year coach, Terry Stotts. “It’s been subtle. What he did at the beginning of the season was out of sheer talent. Since then, he has studied the game. He has able to gauge what he wants to get done better. He has a better comfort level with teammates. He has been able to read defenses and maintain a patience about when to go for a shot. He picks his times when to be aggressive well.”

Before Tuesday’s loss to Memphis at the Rose Garden, Stotts pinpointed Lillard’s transition defense as his biggest area of improvement. As if on cue, the 6-3 rookie displayed it against the Grizzlies, breaking up a 3-on-1 fast-break by deflecting a pass out of bounds.

“With his halfcourt defense, he is navigating screens better, getting better with what he needs to do on the ball and as a help defender,” Stotts says. “All of that is the nuances of the NBA game. He had a lot thrown at him, He has absorbed it all.”

Lillard was the Western Conference rookie of the month in November. And in December. And January. And February, joining a handful of players ever to do it four consecutive months to start their career.

“That consistency is what I like best about him,” Stotts says. “He’ll have a sub-par game now and then, but his month-to-month consistency has been impressive, particularly when more is being asked of him and as defenses are making him a more of a priority.”

The kind of person Lillard is plays heavily into his performance as a player, Stotts theorizes.

“It may not be undervalued, but character sometimes is overlooked,” the Blazer mentor says. “It’s gotten him to this point and has been important in his growth this season.

“To come from Oakland and then go four years to Weber (State) speaks a lot to what type of person he is and how he’s had to work so hard to get everything he has at this point. He doesn’t know anything but to keep working and keep improving. That desire has not waned.”

Lillard has taken pride in the Blazers’ success in staying in the playoff race, which has surprised most preseason pundits.

“A lot of people didn’t expect us to be in the position we’re at right now,” he says. “Some people thought because of the level I played at, I wouldn’t be able to do the same thing at this level, and that our team wouldn’t be good. I’ve been able to defeat that idea. We’ve had a really good year. We’re still in position to make a final run for the playoffs. That’s what I’m most proud of.

“We’ve had our growing pains, where we’ve lost some close games, some games we should have won. But our team has bounced back when we’ve needed to several times. We have a young team, with a lot of rookies playing. Everything we’ve done has been on the fly.”

Lillard genuinely enjoys a camaraderie with his teammates.

“I’ll put my money up that we have as good a group as there is in the league,” he says. “We have a bunch of all-out good guys. We don’t have one (jerk) on the team. Nobody is selfish. Everybody likes everybody. It wasn’t like we forced ourselves to be around each other. It just happened.”

Portland, too, has been a good fit for Lillard, who rents a home in Lake Oswego but ventures into the city every chance he gets.

“I enjoy it,” he says. “It’s a great city. I love the way people treat you. When I’m at the mall and somebody doesn’t recognize me, there’s still respect.”

At first, Lillard wasn’t recognized much. Now, it’s all the time, “which makes it more of a hassle,” he says. “But it’s good. I don’t mind meeting people, taking the time to shake a hand, sign an autograph, take a picture. I’m out all the time, going out to eat, to movies, to the mall — everything.”

Lillard has few peers among point guards at the offensive end, even as a rookie. Not so on defense, where such as Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and others have taken him to the cleaners at times. But Lillard is growing there.

“My defense was not good at the beginning of the season,” he says. “Not because I wasn’t trying or because I can’t defend. At this level, guys are so good at scoring, at getting to spots, it was new for me.

“It takes time to understand how you need to guard, what you can get away with. I always beat myself up about defense. I don’t want to be a guy who gets scored on. But I compete. I can improve. I will improve. I’ve gotten a lot better at it through this year.”

Every NBA player is given the opportunity to support a charitable organization or a cause. Lillard has chosen something unusual — an anti-bullying campaign.

“The idea was brought up, and it was something that hit home with me, not for publicity or show,” he says. “I wasn’t bullied as a kid, but have been around guys who were picked on. I was a guy who stood there with him and wouldn’t let it happen.

“I realize how much it can affect people. It can lead to low self-esteem, even suicide. As an NBA player, if I can behind it and get people to support it, I’m all for it.”

Lillard’s long-term goal is to become the premier point guard in the NBA.

“I think I could be that some day,” he says. “I have to keep getting better and keep believing. In time, I think it’s possible.”

Lillard hopes Portland management keeps the Blazers’ current nucleus intact. Big things could happen, he believes.

“It’ll just take time,” he says.”Oklahoma City is a perfect example. (The Thunder) won 23 games their first year (2008-09). The next year, they made the first round of the playoffs, the next year the conference finals, the next year the finals.

“I’m not saying we have a (Kevin) Durant or a Westbrook. But who’s saying we can’t all up our games this summer and next summer? If we all get better and believe, I don’t see why we can’t be a contender. We have a lot of good pieces on our team. It could happen with this group.”

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