David Thorpe of ESPN.com offers more analysis of Portland Trail Blazers rookie guard Damian Lillard and his Rookie of the Year chances, noting that Lillard is doing a nice job of balancing his roles as scorer and distributor.
Lillard is not doing any one thing great. He's not overwhelming teams the way Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving did as rookies. But he is managing games well, setting up his team's offense while not just being a "setup" guy -- he is still always poised to shoot or drive. This gives the Blazers the advantage of having their point guard as a threat, so when he's on the attack, he draws attention from help defenders, which gets his teammates open. He's also a willing passer who wants to make the right pass, quarterbacking his team to the upper half of the league in offensive efficiency, the only rookie doing so.
A big reason why Lillard is such a strong part of Portland's surprising success is his combination of taking good shots and not turning the ball over a lot. Again, that's not to say that he is great in either of these areas, because he's not. While he doesn't take a lot of bad shots, he still too often takes long 2s off ball screens when his defender goes under the screen, almost as if he's offended they would defend him that way. Naturally, they go under the screen because he is so willing to take that long 2 early in possessions. The same thing applies to his too-frequent step-back jumpers -- a shot he can always get but one he should rarely take.
Even if some other rookies have more impressive metrics, no other rookie is the driving force behind his team's playoff push. If Lillard was too focused on just getting the ball to his scorers, or if he was too focused on scoring himself, the Blazers would not be where they are now in the playoff race. He has played with an excellent balance between those two levels, a difficult task that some veterans (including Mike Conley and Ty Lawson) still struggle with.
There's also an ESPN.com panel that assesses the state of the Rookie of the Year race. A few answers...
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Damian Lillard. Almost every team in the league employs a speedy point guard who can burst off a high pick and get into the paint. What's a more rarified skill is the ability to dictate the pace of a game, to control the conditions, to find something that works when the offense has exhausted all its counters. Lillard does those all those things for 38 minutes per game on a team nobody expected to do anything. As is the case for most rookie point guards, the defense needs a little work.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, HoopSpeak: Anthony Davis, as long as he stays healthy, is better than Damian Lillard right now. While I understand that Lillard runs his team's offense and has been on the floor for more games, it's hard for me to go against AD's complete (for a rookie) game. Davis has the better offensive metrics and, unlike Lillard, he plays some D.
In July, Thorpe wrote that Lillard has the "perfect body" for a point guard. In October, he predicted Lillard could be the best player in the 2012 Draft class. In November, he wondered whether Lillard could have a Kyrie Irving like impact and named Lillard his top rookie of the month. In December, he looked for some possible areas of improvement for Lillard and weighed Lillard's star potential.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter