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Taking Stock: Damian Lillard

Damian Lillard's rookie season was an unabashed success. How does he measure up to the current crop of young, great point guards and how much growth may Blazer fans expect in the future?


Today we continue with our tour of the Portland Trail Blazers roster, taking stock of Portland's current assets in an effort to discover what--and how much--the Blazers need to add over the summer. Yesterday we looked at LaMarcus Aldridge. Today we'll study Portland's other star, and burgeoning favorite son, Damian Lillard.

Within a month of its inception the 2012-13 season morphed from an exercise in patience into a coronation parade towards Damian Lillard's enshrinement as the NBA's Rookie of the Year. As the marching band wound its way from November to April Lillard captured every single Western Conference Rookie of the Month honor. (This begs the question, "What other significant rookies played in the West?" But we'll leave that alone...) He broke the rookie record for three pointers while leading all rookies in scoring, assists, minutes played, and just about every other category you could name. It's the kind of first-year impact that everybody in the lottery dreams of, but few ever achieve. The only accurate summation of Lillard's rookie performance is that it was great. End of story.

This isn't the end of Lillard's career, of course. Blazer fans hear comparisons like, "Only Oscar Robertson and Allen Iverson have ever done this" and forecast a Hall-of-Fame progression going forward. How realistic is that? In what areas did Lillard excel in absolute terms (as opposed to "for a rookie") and in what areas might he be expected to grow?

Lillard's gaudy statistical production can be traced to a single word: volume. Damian played the most minutes of anybody in the NBA this year. He laughs at Kevin Durant's paltry number, scoffs at James Harden, looks down his nose at Kobe Bryant. At this point you'd need a can opener and an acetylene torch to get him out of the Iron Man suit.

But those huge minutes also color phrases like "most three-pointers ever" and "9th most points scored this year". Damian's numbers were wind-aided. He got more chances than anybody else. The positive here is that his team could trust him with that much responsibility. On the flip side, you're hoping the guy won't be playing the most minutes in the league year after year, lest he wear out prematurely. You also anticipate he'll have stronger teammates around him to soak up some of his scoring chances. If everything goes right, those volume-based numbers are going to go down, not up. Will his performance suffer if his minutes dip?

Consider also that once past his rookie season Lillard will become one of a large crop of young, talented point guards. Nobody's going to care about production "for a rookie" or raw numbers for their own sake. Efficiency, not frequency, will measure Lillard's future. He'll need to produce more in fewer minutes to keep the attention he's earned so far.

Fortunately this is one of the areas in which experience will help. Like Aldridge, Lillard spent the first part of the season adjusting to a new system in which less efficient shots are the norm. By the time he got comfortable in the offense, defenses had also honed in on him. Next year he'll be prepared for both. Lillard also deserves credit for the kind of maturity that will not let him sit on his laurels. From what we've seen of his personality and approach to the game, scoring 19 a game and earning a fat contract will not be enough for him. He wants to become a star. He wants to win. He understands his own role in that process. He's going to get better. The questions are, in which areas and how much?

Make no mistake, Lillard needs to get better. Let's push aside the awards and accolades and compare Lillard to three other young, promising point guards: Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, and Jrue Holiday.

FG% Rookie

Irving .469

Curry .462

Holiday .442

Lillard .429

FG% Today

Irving .452

Curry .451

Holiday .431

Lillard .429

3PT% Rookie

Curry .437

Irving .399

Holiday .390

Lillard .368

3PT% Today

Curry .453

Irving .391

Holiday .368

Lillard .368

TS% Rookie

Curry .568

Irving .566

Lillard .546

Holiday .526

TS % Today

Curry .589

Irving .553

Lillard .546

Holiday .496

PTS Per36 Rookie

Irving 21.8

Lillard 17.8

Curry 17.4

Holiday 12.0

PTS Per36 Today

Irving 23.3

Curry 21.6

Lillard 17.8

Holiday 17.0

FTA Per36 Rookie

Irving 4.5

Lillard 3.7

Curry 2.5

Holiday 1.8

FTA Per36 Today

Irving 5.1

Lillard 3.7

Curry 3.5

Holiday 3.0

AST Per36 Rookie

Irving 6.4

Lillard 6.0

Curry 5.9

Holiday 5.7

AST Per36 Today

Holiday 7.7

Curry 6.5

Irving 6.2

Lillard 6.0

PER Rookie

Irving 21.4

Lillard 16.4

Curry 16.3

Holiday 12.3

PER Today

Irving 21.4

Curry 21.3

Holiday 16.7

Lillard 16.4

You can see how the phrase "Historical Rookie Season" rests on sheer volume of minutes and touches. Lillard didn't finish first in any of these categories even when comparing rookie seasons to rookie seasons. The story gets worse when you compare numbers straight across regardless of experience. That Lillard belongs on this chart of young, hot point guard is obvious. But his only advantage over Irving and Curry so far has been durability. The production numbers say he tends towards the Holiday end of the scale.

Lillard has skill, talent, poise, determination, and star power. Experience should inform him how to take better advantage of those things. BUT...he's going to have to make some significant jumps before you begin talking about him in the same sentence as the league's best point guards. He needs to tighten up his game before he can get into the conversation about the league's best young point guard even.

How much ceiling does Lillard have left? Getting from 19 to 20 points per game isn't much of a stretch even if his overall minutes go down. Can he ever get to that 22-24 ppg level that defines superstars in this league? Will he hit the 44%+ field goal shooting percentage that makes such a level practical or get his three-point percentage any closer to 40%?

If Lillard does need another star-level scorer alongside him (besides Aldridge) you have to start worrying about defense. Damian's defensive rating was worse than anybody's on the team outside of Eric Maynor. That's not likely to change anytime soon. This year we saw the consequences of playing two poor defenders in the same lineup. If you sub in a shot-blocking center do you put even more scoring pressure on the rest of the lineup? Where are you going to find a guy who scores heavy, keeps defenders off of Damian's back, and can hold his own on the defensive end, allowing Lillard to be Lillard? Even if the kid is great, constructing a viable team around him isn't a slam dunk proposition.

The Blazers are in a good position going forward with Lillard in pocket. Both Lillard and the team will need to put in work if the relationship is to bear fruit, however. Oscar Robertson comparisons don't tell the story. The standing ovation for Lillard's Rookie of the Year season has to be followed by some serious planning for the future. The parade is over. Now the real work begins.

Tomorrow: A look at Portland's starting wings.

--Dave (