There was a great moment in Damian Lillard’s third summer league game. He had been playing out of his mind throughout the whole exhibition and the announcers were interviewing coach Terry Sttots about the Blazers’ new point guard. A pretty typical interview up till that point, they had just finished asking Stotts for an NBA player comparison when Dame threw down a vicious one handed dunk over a foolish big man. Immediately, the announcers decided they needed to revisit the comparison question and the inevitable hyperbole bubbled over.
This was in 2012. Derrick Rose was only one knee injury in and everyone thought he would come back the same player. The image that came to mind at the very mention of his name was Rose flying through the air, contorting twelve different directions, and finishing up, over and around players twice his size.
Lillard’s rookie year didn’t go quite according to plan. Or at least it didn’t go quite according to that plan. He had a great year in his own right but the one place he always looked overpowered was in the paint. It was as if his small school had prepared him for everything in the NBA except seven footers with impeccable timing.
In terms of finishing at the rim, his second season was more of an encore than a step in the right direction. Lillard shot 49.9% in the restricted area and a measly 40.2% on drives. That sounds pretty bad but let’s really drive the point home. Here’s a list of all the point guards that shot a higher percentage in the restricted area than Lillard that year (min 150 FGA).
Dragic, Wall, Bledsoe, Thomas, Lin, Curry, Parker, Lowry, Conley, Nelson, Lawson, Bradley, Irving, Wolters, Teague, Chalmers, Westbrook, Jackson, Knight, Livingston, Oladipo, Sessions, Wroten, Evans, Carter-Williams, RAYMOND FREAKING FELTON, Cole
I count two 76ers, a current D-League player (basically the same thing), and probably the most despised former Trail Blazer of all time. Ouch.
Now for the good news. Here’s that same list from this year (at the time I looked it up):
Dragic, Curry, Bledsoe, Lowry
That’s it. Who’s not a top-5 point guard again?
(Shhh. Don’t talk about the defense. We’ll cover that in a couple days. Just be cool.)
Great guard finishers tend to come in three different flavors or school’s of thought. You’ve got The Dragon’s School of Crafty Fakes and Flip Shots, Curry’s Floater Revival, and Bledsoe’s Brute Force Training Institute for Freak Athletes.
The interesting thing is that Lillard doesn’t fit into any of them. He never could figure out the jump into the defender, bounce off creating space, and finish over the big man maneuver. He doesn’t have the footwork and spins to fake shot blockers out of their jock straps. And no matter how much I want him to steal Tony Parker’s floater Monstar style he just can’t seem to find the touch. No, Lillard has created his own curriculum.
Lillard’s Montessori School for Selective Pace.
If you go back and watch Lillard’s first year, the guy is fearless to a fault. Every other drive he would charge into the lane with the big man squared up waiting for him. Lillard would jump into or around the big man trying to make good on those DRose comparisons.
Actually, just watch this clip from the Brooklyn game and you can start to get an idea of what I’m talking about.
Lillard is aware of it too. In an interview with Mike Richman about his improvement inside he stated he was "just challenging everybody left and right" during his rookie year. Now he’s much more selective and is using his pace to set up his shots better. He knows when he should challenge the defense and when he should probe a little longer. He knows when he’s got the shot blocker out of position and when he should find an open shooter.
In both these examples, Lillard finds a way to use his quickness to get an advantage on the defender before he goes up for the layup. He’s not trying to shoot over or jump around a set big man. He’s getting ahead of or beside the defender before he leaves his feet. Once he has that positional advantage, Lillard is doing a great job of using the rim to protect the shot or getting the ball to the glass quickly before the defender can react.
All told, Lillard is shooting 61.2% in the restricted area and an improved 51.2% on drives. What’s more interesting is that he’s actually scoring less on a per drive basis than he did last season. Lillard is scoring 0.7 points per drive this year compared to 0.74 last year, according to stats.NBA.com. If he’s shooting a higher percentage but scoring fewer points then he must be passing the ball more. This is reflected in how many points the team scores on Lillard’s drives. That number has increased from 1.13 points per drive last year to an impressive 1.25 points per drive this year. To put that number into context, the Cavs have scored 1.2 points per every Lebron drive this year.
He’s gone from being like Mr. Cupcake to Mr. King in a single season.
Of all the things to be excited about for the playoffs, seeing Lillard go to work with a more complete offensive skill set has got to be near the top of the list. The only problem is that we may have already seen it. During last year's playoffs, Lillard improved his shooting percentage inside by about 10%. He shot 60% in the restricted area and 50% on drives, eerily similar to what he’s done this season.
That could mean one of two things. Either Lillard is an elite clutch performer and we can expect a similar jump in efficiency this year or Lillard had made most of his improvements by the end of last season. Lillard ratcheting up his play relative to his current season would be a huge boost and is one of the most encouraging prospects heading into the first round.
I, for one, have learned not to doubt the man.