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The Range-Defying Talent of Damian Lillard

Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard is one of the premier long-range artists in today’s NBA.

Dallas Mavericks v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Damian Lillard has been on a tear this past week, breaking the franchise record for points in a game (61) and points over a two-game stretch (108). Lost among all that excitement, he also set an NBA record for long-range marksmanship.

Through 44 games, Lillard has already drilled more shots from 30+ feet in a single season than any other player in NBA history. He still has 40 games to add to his total, and if these past two games are any indicator, he’s going to push that record to its plausible limit.

On the season, Lillard is shooting 28-69 from 30 feet and out. For context, that’s a full six feet behind the NBA arc, and he’s pulling up off the dribble, guarded, and nailing them at a 40% clip. Insane doesn’t begin to describe what Lillard is doing. Only 29 players shoot that accurately from behind the arc, let alone another six to 15 feet beyond that. With McCollum out, Lillard is forcing teams to send doubles as soon as he crosses half court. Any longer, and it’s too late: Logo Lillard is already in range. He has knocked down five out of six shots from 35-40 feet, which is a preposterous 83.5% on shots that most shooters wouldn’t even consider.

The past two outings have demonstrated the game-changing potential of this range. With a depleted roster, facing a defense completely geared up to stop him, Lillard still erupted for 61 and 47 points, and that is in large part because he made four-for-five from 30+. Defenses aren’t built to spread that far above the arc. The mere threat of Dame rising up creates driving lanes for himself and open corner threes for Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza.

Lest you feel the urge to (falsely) claim these are a “bad shot, man”—like one unnamed sore loser—consider the hours Lillard has put in practicing these exact scenarios. Back in December, Kirk Goldsberry detailed for ESPN the amount of work it’s taken for Damian and his longtime trainer Phil Beckner to turn the impossible into the routine.

“To build consistency so far away from the rim, the duo turned to The Celtic 50, a tried and true shooting exercise. Beckner learned it from Kevin Eastman, a longtime NBA assistant who spent much of his career working for Doc Rivers.

Here’s how it works: You have to make 10 shots from five different spots around the 3-point arc, keeping track of how many attempts it takes you at each spot. So the best score you can get is a 50, with no misses at all. At a 50% shooting clip with 20 attempts from each spot, you’d score a 100. Like in golf, lower scorers are better.

Generally, the best shooters at any level of basketball can sometimes log a 60. Beckner recalls first getting Lillard doing the drill in college, behind the shorter line. He was stunned watching Lillard drop a 51 — two different times. Just a single miss on Lillard’s entire run. As Lillard racked up consecutive makes, Beckner did his best to act normal and avoid a jinx.

The two extended the challenge to the NBA line when Lillard joined the Blazers, and Lillard stills scores 60 or better 95% of the time, according to Beckner. His record is 52. And Lillard is closing in on that record from the 4-point line.

Standing 28 feet from the basket, Lillard spent the summer of 2018 routinely missing fewer than 10 shots in The Celtic 50. His best score: 54. That’s a 93% conversion rate. The dude is a special shooter.

By the end of the 2018 offseason, Beckner realized conventional wisdom about shot distances in the NBA no longer applied to Lillard. The very notion of good shots and bad shots was different for him. As long as Lillard could maintain his shooting form from deep distances, his efficiency would be just fine.”

While to this point the season has fallen short of the organization and fan base’s lofty goals, Lillard continues to dazzle and delight as he defies expectations. He continues to boost his play, this time by aggressively exploring the outer limits of human shooting range. Through 44 games, he already finds himself in uncharted territory.

Credit to Reddit user irelli for bringing this to my attention.