Right at the absolute, very tip top of the priorities list for the Portland Trail Blazers as they enter the 2012-13 season is the development of rookie point guard Damian Lillard.
Lillard, 22, was the No. 6 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. Before he was even done shaking commissioner David Stern's hand in Newark, the label "franchise point guard" -- and the expectations that go with that -- were thrust upon him by Blazers GM Neil Olshey. For the current group of Blazers to find meaningful postseason success over the next half-decade, Lillard, who spent four seasons at Weber State University, must transform from a Big Sky Conference standout into an All-Star level player.
The Blazers have taken multiple steps to aid that growth curve. First, they signed veteran guard Ronnie Price, a friend of Lillard's, to fill the veteran mentor role in an otherwise young backcourt. Second, the Blazers hired David Vanterpool, 39, as an assistant coach.
A former point guard himself, Vanterpool joins the Blazers from the Oklahoma City Thunder, where he served in a scouting and player personnel role. On Tuesday, Lillard singled Vanterpool out as the Blazers assistant coach with whom he had developed the closest connection.
As a reminder, here was Lillard's assessment of Vanterpool.
"I've been working with coach David a lot," Lillard said. "Even when I first got here we got up every morning to work out before the team workouts and all the lifting. I think we're building a relationship. I ride with him to the track to do conditioning. We talk there and back... Me and David, we really hit it off when I first got here... We've been working on a lot of pick-and-rolls, in-between stuff, floaters, pull-up jumpers, keeping it simple."
"They say players like coaches who sweat with them," Lillard said. "Every morning, he's out there sweating with me. Working hard with me. He's kind of a younger guy, he knows how we are. He knows how it is, what we like to do, what we're interested in. To have someone like that who is around, a coach, who isn't afraid to get on you, to tell you what you need to hear, instead of what you want to hear, it's always a good thing."
On Thursday, Vanterpool spoke with Blazersedge following the morning training camp session to discuss his background, his relationship with Lillard and the promising point guard's future.
Here's a transcript of that interview.
Year one in Portland. Where do you stand these days career-wise?
Well, my playing career is over, obviously. [Laughs] I've had a great opportunity, been blessed with a lot of different situations as far as basketball goes. I played point guard in the NBA, I played point guard at the highest level in Europe, won European championships, I played point guard in the CBA and won a CBA championship. I've basically played the position my whole professional career, which spanned 13 years, and also in college.
What type of point guard were you?
I was probably a lot less score first. I didn't have the speed, have some of the small ball-handling skills when I played, but i tried to be as cerebral as possible. I really tried to study the game, situations, angles, all those things and use those to make up for the lack of quickness and speed, some of the things I didn't have. I was fortunate enough to go from college to the NBA, play that same position, go to Europe, play the same position, even if I wasn't the quickest guy.
That's a pretty natural transition from being a cerebral point guard to a scout and coach, I would imagine?
The natural transition is usually to coaching. I actually did coach for one season at CSKA Moscow, under Ettore Messina, who was an incredible mentor to me. He really taught me a lot, the nuances of the game, some of the things as far as learning. How important it is to be a thinking player. It's probably more important than being a physical player, as far as using your athletic abilities, because at some point in your career, some of those athletic abilities will be gone. If you can still use your brain, you can still succeed in this league.
Damian, right now, still has that athleticism, that quickness, that speed. If he can couple that with some of the learning curve things, he'll be that much further ahead of the game.
As a scout with the Oklahoma City Thunder, were you doing college scouting or pro scouting?
I did pro personnel. Being blessed to be in a great organization, great situation. I had the chance to work under Sam Presti, who is again a cerebral person. He's into digging into layers of sitautions. I did scout my first season and then my role grew over the course of the next year. I dealt with pro personnel more than anything but I did help out with some college stuff during the lockout.
Damian told me at media day that one of the three point guards he looks up to most is Thunder guard Russell Westbrook. My first impression is that those two guys have completely different personalities. Would you agree?
Russell is fiery because of his competitive spirit on the court. He's a great guy. They're both great, great people. Damian has a warm personality and so does Russell, especially when he's comfortable around people that he knows. For Damian to look up to Russell means a lot, simply because Russell had to come from a situation where in college he didn't always start at point guard, he wasn't really recruited out of high school, he wasn't predicted to play point guard in the NBA at all.
Now he's a 2-time All-Star, who has been to two Western Conference finals, been to an NBA Finals and he's still getting questioned. It takes a lot of work, a lot of work ethic, believing in yourself to achieve some of those things amidst all of those things that other people say. Russell has been able to do those type of things -- for Damian to look up to somebody like that, it makes my job easier. It tells me he's ready to put the necessary work in to be great.
Is it fair to say that the opportunity to work with Damian, a lottery pick point guard, was a major factor when you were weighing this Blazers assistant coach job offer?
Not so much just him per se but it was just a matter of me having the itch to be in coaching and having the chance to affect all these young players. I don't want to be pigeon-holed that I just work with guards or I just work with point guards. I study the game as much as possible and I try to help all of the guys, from Damian all the way up through Meyers [Leonard] at center. My job is to help anybody get better in any facet I can.
Fortunately, Damian and I have kind of taken to each other. We've spent a lot of hours in this gym, early in the morning, when we first met, running, doing some conditioning together, some of those type of things I think helps to build that kinship with all the players. That was attractive to me, just having the opportunity, coach Terry [Stotts] and [GM] Neil [Olshey], having the confidence in me to come in with these guys, sweat with them, and help them get better. That's what it's all about.
Damian has said he doesn't like to get on guys too much on the court and that he doesn't have people getting on him too much either. How would you describe his learning style? He almost seems placid sometimes.
It's kind of funny because people want in a point guard someone that is a lot more steady. They don't want guys who go on rollercoaster rides as far as their emotions. They want guys who are steady -- never too high, never too low. People look at Damian's demeanor and that's one thing that sticks out. The fact that his demeanor is one thing that always stays the same. Some people want more, more fire or vocality from him. Those things will happen as he gets more comfortable in his role.
For now, being able to have a situation where your reaction doesn't change if you make a turnover or you make a 3-point shot, it's something that keeps the team calm. It's very necessary. In a young player, it's good that he has that now because as he gets better and more vocal, as he starts to get on guys -- and he will get to that, it takes some time -- having that foundation of being steady and keeping things in perspective is really important.
Let's say you were still scouting for the Thunder. How would you break down his game?
He can flat out shoot the basketball. He has a quickness. He has some very, very good explosion. Being able to affect the game at any moment, being able to shoot the basketball the way he does, from our 3-point line, is not always the easiest thing, especially for a rookie coming in. You come in as a point guard, you get other guys the ball, you don't always shoot immediately, but he has the ability to wait it out, take a shot and it's going in. You get a lot of confidence and consistency with that. Those are three of the things that really stand out to me: his ability to shoot the basketball, which is great, his quickness, and his explosion.
He's also pretty good at finishing around the rim. Being so small and compact he can still finish around the rim. He can definitely take contact, his body is built for that.
Being such a special kid, a good kid. Character plays a big part in this league in my opinion. Where I came from, Oklahoma City, that was way up high, dealing with guys and dealing with people we wanted in our organization. What's being built here will hopefully be a part of that. Damian is a big part of that, he's one of those good character guys.
Who are comparable players to Damian and what do you see as his ceiling?
One that kind of comes to mind is Terrell Brandon, if people remember him. He kind of reminds me of him a little bit. Some of the ability that Damian has to take over games and situations at any moment. I can't think of a better comp right now.
As far as his ceiling, I think this kid can be a franchise-type point guard. I think he has the natural athleticism and the physical ability to do some special things. That's the God-given part. The part that you can't teach -- you can't teach Russell Westbrook to jump over the top of people. But the cerebral part of the game, that he's learning now, he's very receptive to getting them. The more he gets that, the faster he gets that, the better off he will be.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter