PORTLAND – Damian Lillard usually sticks to the rookie script, rarely showing much excitement.
But when the Trail Blazers’ guard sank the game-winning 3-pointer against New Orleans last week, he celebrated by high-fiving a fan seated near the bench.
“I have no idea who it was,” Lillard said, laughing. “He was the first guy that I saw.”
Lillard, playing with a veteran’s poise and a rookie’s humility, is the early favorite for Rookie of the Year.
“I think he’s a wonderful player,” San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “His skills are obvious but I like his demeanor as much as I like his skills. He really plays within himself, he’s not afraid of contact and he understands how to take advantage of situations.”
Popovich knows. Lillard dropped 29 points on his Spurs last Thursday in a 98-90 Portland win. Then he hit the game-winning 3 with 0.3 seconds left in a 95-84 victory over the Hornets on Sunday night.
Lillard was the sixth overall pick in the June draft out of Weber State, where he was a two-time Big Sky Conference player of the year. He averaged 24.5 points, five rebounds and four assists as a junior with the Wildcats before declaring early for the draft.
From the start, Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey called him the team’s “franchise point guard.” Lillard was the key component as Portland rebuilt around LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews after finishing 28-38 and out of the playoffs last season.
“You can break his game down and quantify the shooting, the ball handling, the assist to turnover ratio, the pick-and-roll efficiency. What can’t be quantified is his leadership ability and the gravitas he carries himself with as a young player,” Olshey said.
The 6-foot-3 point guard excelled first in the NBA’s Summer League, where he averaged 26.5 points and was the league’s co-MVP.
In Portland’s opener on Halloween night against the Los Angeles Lakers, Lillard had 23 points and 11 assists. He joined Isiah Thomas and Oscar Robinson as the only players with at least 20 points and 10 assists in their NBA debuts.
Lillard had at least 20 points in his first three games, matching Grant Hill for the NBA record set in 1994. He is averaging 18.8 points, best by far among the NBA’s first-year players, along with 6.3 assists, 3.3 rebounds and a labor-intensive 38 minutes per game.
He is the only Blazer to start in all 23 games and he had at least one 3-pointer in his first 20 pro games, tying an NBA record. Lillard was the league’s Rookie of the Month for November.
“It’s almost like he glides with the ball. He has a high basketball IQ,” Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “The thing you love about him more than anything else is he plays with a chip on his shoulder. He’s one of those underdogs who went to a small school who is out to prove to everybody he’s an NBA player.”
Lillard, for his part, just wants to keep it simple.
“My main focus is to keep trying to help us win games,” he said.