Damian Lillard: The Reality

Our first official post-vacation Blazers-related post covers Damian Lillard. He's the guy everybody's asking about. How good is he? Is what we saw in Summer League indicative or was it too good to be true?

I recorded a full-length VideoCast before I left for vacation but my computer and YouTube chose that day to have a spat. They wouldn't talk to each other and I didn't have time to get them back on speaking terms before I left. I'm going to cannibalize some of that pre-Summer-League video now with this short discussion of Lillard. It serves two purposes:

1. It covers the basics...or at least as much as you can cover in three minutes.

2. It'll show that I'm not just reacting to Lillard's Summer League MVP performance in what I say, as Summer League hadn't happened yet when this was filmed. Check it out and then read on.

So what have we learned? First, Lillard performed about as expected in Summer League, just on the high end of scale. We already knew he could do these things. They weren't flukes. He can dribble either direction, score off of drive and jumper both, hit from range, use screens, make decent decisions with the ball. He's not an uber-dominant athlete but he thinks his way into plenty of points. Though not mentioned in the video clip, we also knew his defense was lacking...a fault on display in Vegas as well. This really is Damian Lillard. What you saw is mostly what you'll get.

Naturally we'll throw in the caveat that Summer League is not the end of the journey, just the first step. You cannot prove yourself in Vegas. The only solid, permanent conclusions you can draw from Summer League are the failures. If you blow it there, you can't make it in this league. If you succeed there a half dozen steps yet remain before stardom.

We should also mention that Summer League is made for guys like Lillard. Ball-handling, scoring guards find a paradise in the desert. Nate Robinson was a Vegas Summer League superhero. Jamal Crawford used to light it up too. You all know what Jerryd Bayless did for the Blazers a few years back. When his talent and skills mixed with that environment, Lillard was going to look good.

Lillard's MVP should be viewed in the same light as his excellence at Weber State. It's not like the competition was NBA-quality but he dominated against the opponents he was given. What more could you ask? What more could he do? So far he's accomplished everything he was supposed to: develop into a lottery pick in college, play like a star in Vegas. He's 2-0 in that six-step process. I certainly prefer that to a guy with pedigree and/or potential who somehow keeps stumbling on the way to his theoretical ceiling.

An author I read long ago (don't remember who) wrote about assassins who trained from childhood by jumping over sunflowers (or some such plant). They started on Day 1 when the flower was tiny and kept at it every day. They didn't even notice that when the stalk had grown six feet tall they were performing miraculous jumps. Their leaping ability kept pace with the rising bar. That's the Lillard way. I have a feeling that as you put better competition in front of him he's going to get better too. It'll take time, but you're going to like this guy.

The other thing I hit on strongly in the video was the Jerryd Bayless comparisons which started when Lillard was labeled a short scoring guard and increased with the Vegas MVP. Before Ben came on board and relieved me of the travel duties I used to cover Summer League. I saw Brandon Roy play down there. I saw Jerryd Bayless light up the court as well...floor seats, every moment, every game.

Reaction to Roy in media circles was enthusiastic but somewhat muted. He wasn't a standout athlete. They knew he was the "most NBA-ready" guy out there before he came. He was supposed to be good. My reaction to Roy was just plain enthusiastic. You had to watch what he was doing with his dribble, his direction-changing capacity, the way his brain was scanning the court and finding the openings. I told readers to give him a little time (unnecessary, as it turns out, as he won Rookie of the Year) and he was going to be very, very good.

Reaction to Bayless in media circles was hot. He was a physical specimen. He poured in points. He was only a low lottery pick but he looked like an All-Star in the making. I had one guy, now departed for another network, turn to me after a Jerryd dunk and say with incredulity, "It's not fair that you guys got Bayless!" I gave Jerryd his due, but it was immediately evident that he was no Roy. It wasn't just the height but the way he scored, the way he saw the floor (or didn't), the skills he showed (or didn't). I didn't say it to the incredulous guy, but I would have happily let him have Bayless for the starry-eyed deal he no doubt would have made me at that moment. I figured Bayless would make some kind of an impact, likely as a bench scorer, but he wasn't going to make THAT kind of an impact.

Damian Lillard is closer to Brandon Roy than he is to Jerryd Bayless. That's not to say he IS Roy. I don't expect he'll win Rookie of the Year (though he could well be in the discussion given his likely playing time) nor do I expect him to be a perennial All-Star and All-NBA candidate. But if you're comparing level of skill, talent, potential impact, and likelihood of success among high-level Summer League standouts--putting Bayless on one end of the scale and Roy on the other--Lillard will drift heavily towards Roy. He's multi-dimensional, a point manufacturer, he's got enough body and speed, and he's got the brain.

So no worries, Blazer fans. It looks as if Portland's first high pick of the new era was well-spent. Enjoy watching this guy develop. You'll see some bumps and bruises but overall you're going to be pleased.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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