Portland Trail Blazers rookie guard Damian Lillard, who attended college at Weber State University in Ogden, drew a bunch of media attention during his return to Utah to face the Jazz on Friday. Here's a round-up.
Bill Oram of the Salt Lake Tribune writes...
"I had a few opportunities to win games for us at the end, and I didn't," Lillard told The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday, one day before his Portland Trail Blazers play the Utah Jazz. "They believed in me one more time against New Orleans, and I was able to knock one down."
How can anyone not believe in Lillard at this point? The former Weber State All-American was picked sixth in June's draft and has guided the Trail Blazers to a 23-22 record. They are 11/2 games behind the Jazz in the Northwest Division. Lillard forms a fearsome pairing with All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge and is atop most objective rankings of this year's rookies. His average of 18.1 points per game is the best among rookies by nearly four points, and he is one of just four players in the NBA to average 18 or more points and six or more assists and shoot at least 42 percent from the field. The others? LeBron James, Tony Parker, and last year's Rookie of the Year, Cleveland guard Kyrie Irving.
"I want to be the Rookie of the Year," Lillard said. "That's not my primary focus - I really want to be in the playoffs this year. I think as long as I'm doing what I'm doing and helping my team win games, our success as a team will mean I'm playing well, and I think that will lead to individual success."
Randy Hollis of the Deseret News writes...
It's so refreshing to see someone who has stepped into the spotlight and yet remains essentially the same guy who he was back before nobody had heard of him.
"I remember before all this happened," he said of his emerging stardom. "I remember when everybody didn't believe and everybody said it was the league I played in and how I didn't play against NBA-level competition. I didn't believe all the hype and what everybody was saying back then, so now that the tables have turned, I'm not going to start buying into it now."
"I know some people are probably waiting for me to fail at something because it's been a smooth transition. So I know people are waiting to say, 'He hit the rookie wall,' or 'He was just playing out of his mind.' So I'm just trying to be consistent and prove to people that I belong here and the level that I'm playing at is the level that I'm going to play at. So I think it's just constantly working and keep on proving people wrong."
More from Hollis here...
"I can't really compare him to any other rookies that I've had," the Blazers' coach said. "He's playing at a very high level. He's been very consistent. And you wouldn't really know that he's a rookie by the way he plays or by the way he handles himself, and that's very unusual. And I haven't seen that very often in my time in the NBA."
During pregame introductions, Lillard received a warm welcome from many of the fans on hand - including a large contingent from Weber State - and the cheers for him grew louder when he got things rolling in the third quarter.
"It just felt like a welcome home," he said. "People I've been around the last four years coming to support me even though all of them are probably longtime Jazz fans. For them to cheer that loud when I came out, it meant a lot.
Dana Greene of ABC4.com here...
"I know that it is a long season," he said. "I don't want to have a one year career. It's about progress and constant improvement. I'm just trying to stay in the moment and not look too far ahead. I just want to keep getting better."
Lillard credits his rise to stardom to his days at Weber State with head coach Randy Rahe.
"My coaches developed me each of my four years there," Lillard said. "It was never like I showed up to Weber State as an NBA player. Each summer, they sat down with me and thought out things that I needed to improve upon. I think every year I improved as a person and a player."
Jeremiah Jensen of KSL.com with thoughts from Blazers guard Ronnie Price...
"I think because his demeanor, his maturity," Price credits as the reason for his early success. "The fact that being an Oakland kid and then having the chance to get out of that element and come to Utah play college basketball, that's important. I think that he's had some great mentors around him and he's handled his situation very well. You can't say that about many rookies that come into the league."
Lillard has shown his star potential during the first half of the season and Price believes it's just the beginning for Damian.
"He can be special man," Price says about his potential. "There is really no limit to what he can do as a basketball player on the floor. It's really up to him to take his game to whatever level he wants to take it to. I told him six or seven years from now I'll be bringing my son to the game and hopefully watch an All-Star."
More from Oram after Friday's game here...
Lillard, who was named Friday the Western Conference's Rookie of the Month for the third straight month, scored 26 points on 10-of-23 shooting. However, 22 of those points came after halftime when the Jazz already led 51-36.
"He's an explosive scorer for these guys," coach Tyrone Corbin said. "He attacked us down the lane in the pick and roll situation. Got to do a better job of staying between he and the basket, making him make shots over the top. He's a capable 3-point shooter."
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter