This week, Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney of Sport’s Illustrated have been counting down their top 100 NBA players of 2018. On Monday, we noted that Jusuf Nurkic made the list as the 69th-best player. Yesterday, CJ McCollum showed up at no. 39. Trail Blazer fans have been wondering exactly where Damian Lillard would fall. Today, Golliver and Mahoney announced players 30–11, and Lillard slotted in at no. 17.
Mahoney praised Lillard for continuing to improve as a scorer, specifically noting his growth in getting to the rim.
Even at 27 years old, Lillard is still learning. There’s so much to explore when every defense he faces is rightly terrified of his jumper. Schemes are built to stop him from even taking shots, and still they cede 27 points per game without Lillard really pressing beyond what is reasonable. … His latest trick: manipulating defenders to get to his drive (and to to the free throw line) even more often.
The cat-and-mouse game has been good to Lillard, who finished 58.6% of his shots in the restricted area last season, up from 51.9% the season prior. More of his heavily contested layups are ending in fouls, too, as Lillard feels his way through the nuances of creating contact. Making space comes naturally. Lillard has spent his entire basketball life trying to put enough separation between himself and his defender to hoist up a jumper. It’s knowing when to bump and how to fall that demanded some on-the-job training, the result of which has Lillard up to 7.3 free throw attempts per game.
Lillard finished last season with a career-best 27 points per game. He averaged 7.3 free throws a game (also a career-best) while shooting career-highs in both field goal and free throw percentage (44.4 and 89.5, respectively).
Sport’s Illustrated’s list of players in the 30–11 range include a number of prominent point guards. They rank Lillard ahead of Kyrie Irving (21), Kyle Lowry (19), and Mike Conley (18) but behind John Wall (13). Last year’s rankings had Lillard at 21. Some players, including McCollum, have expressed their displeasure with media player rankings.