OAKLAND, Calif. — What Portland Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey likes most about rookie point guard Damian Lillard is his duality.
Off the court, Lillard is a humble young man, well-mannered and congenial. A 22-year-old who can schmooze with executive types and endear himself to veteran teammates.
And on the court ...
“He's from Oakland,” Olshey said. “He's got an edge. He's got swagger. I think it's that dichotomy that makes him special.”
More than two months into the season, he is the front-runner for NBA Rookie of the Year honors. He's already being deemed the next in a tradition of elite Oakland point guards.
But what's dropping jaws around the league about Lillard, the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft, is how complete his game is. He's not just dominating with athleticism, or simply scoring in bunches. He's leading a team playing above-. 500 ball, battling for a playoff spot in the tough Western Conference.
And on Friday, when the Warriors hosted the Trail Blazers, Lillard played his first game in his hometown.
Though the Trail Blazers lost to the Warriors, 103-97, on Friday night, Lillard finished with a career-high 37 points on 15-of-25 shooting. He converted five of his seven three-pointers in the second half, nearly leading Portland to its second thrilling comeback in two nights.
“He has talent,” the Warriors' Stephen Curry, who had 22 points and 12 assists on Friday, said of Lillard. “He's probably going to be Rookie of the Year, and he showed a lot tonight. I look forward to playing him again. Hopefully we stop him.”
It wasn't far-fetched that Oracle Arena could have become Lillard's home-court, especially with Curry's health still uncertain at the time of last June's NBA draft.
“I definitely thought it was a possibility,” Lillard said before the game. “I thought we could play together. I thought me and him could be on the floor at the same time the same way they do it with he and (Jarrett) Jack.”
The physical elements of Lillard's game are no doubt impressive. He's 6-foot-3, 195 pounds with deceptive athleticism. And don't let his outside shot get going.
“I don't know that there is anybody who you can compare him to,” says TNT analyst Steve Kerr, who broadcast Thursday night's Portland-Miami matchup. “He combines deep shooting range with his penetration ... Usually guys are better at one than the other. He appears to be equally efficient at both.”
He is shooting just 42 percent from the field. But already Lillard has proved he can dominate a game offensively. His 18.2 points and. 6.5 assists in 38.1 minutes per game are tops among rookies.
“You've got to love everything about him,” Warriors coach Mark Jackson said of Lillard. “We thought highly of him. He was clearly the best point guard in the draft ... No surprise what he's doing. They found themselves a point guard to build on for a long time to come.”
Lillard has impressed his teammates and NBA peers with his veteran aura. He plays with a poise that has impressed even LeBron James.
“He's never out of his comfort zone,” James told reporters on Wednesday. “He's never too fast, he's never too slow. He plays in his own lane.”
He's got the kind of control on the court that makes San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich take notice.
“His skills are obvious, but I like his demeanor as much as I like his skills,” Popovich told reporters after Lillard totaled 29 points, seven rebounds and six assists in a mid-December win over the Spurs. “I think he's a wonderful player. He really plays within himself, and that doesn't mean he doesn't play hard. He's aggressive, he's not afraid of contact.”
Lillard's journey explains his makeup. That edge to his game was inherited from his dad, Houston, known for handling his own on Oakland's blacktop in his day, and groomed in the same Oakland hoops culture that birthed Gary Payton and Jason Kidd.
But what added to it was the chip on Damian's shoulder that comes from being overlooked by major colleges. A star at Oakland High, he dominated the competition. But despite his obvious potential, Lillard wound up at Weber State in Utah. That didn't turn out to be the worst thing, as the culture shock helped hone his ability to adapt. The small-town, familial atmosphere of college allowed his personality to shine.
“We always taught him to respect people,” Lillard's dad said. “He's always been a great kid. We've never had any problems with him. He gets along with everyone. If you don't like Damian, then something is wrong with you.”
Weber State also prepared him for the task of running a team. Known for being a score-first guard, Lillard got experience as a floor general. He was the heart and soul of the Wildcats.
So instead of being less ready for the NBA because he came from a small school, he had gained valuable experience.
“He's not unlike Steph Curry in that he knows what it's like for any chance your team has of succeeding riding on you,” Olshey said. “He's been in big-game situations. He's had to handle the pressure. He's unflappable.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services