Ogden • Not many people saw this coming when he was a high school project from Oakland, Calif. But the Damian Lillard bandwagon is now officially full — and verging on overloaded.
Weber State’s dynamic junior guard leads the nation in scoring (just more than 25 points per game) and is the odds-on favorite to pick up his second Big Sky Conference MVP award at the end of the season. And the professional guys have noticed. Eight NBA scouts sat courtside during a recent home game against Montana State.
How unexpected was this? Not even best friend and Weber State teammate Frank Otis, who has been hanging out with Lillard since fourth grade, had an inkling of what was to come.
“I didn’t think he was going to be this good,” said Otis. “If you asked anybody from back home, they’d probably expect I’d be doing better than him right now. But he came a long way. He was working hard in high school, but once he got to college, he stepped it up.
“It’s just hard work paying off.”
Weber State coach Randy Rahe says the success couldn’t have come to a nicer guy. Lillard, who had to scrap to get to this point, is now taking all the attention in stride.
“I couldn’t be more pleased,” Rahe said. “Damian has one sole focus, and that’s to win. I don’t think he cares if President Obama is sitting in the stands, he’s going to play the same way. That’s what makes him different. He’s not playing for himself, he’s playing for his teammates.”
Said Lillard: “It’s natural for me not to buy into all this stuff. My mom always taught me to be humble and to live in the moment. Last year people were saying the same thing ... and then I got hurt and it was all taken away from me.”
NBA scouts appreciate Lillard’s patience and his ability to let the game come to him while setting up teammates — valued skills in an NBA point guard.
Websites that follow the NBA draft have Lillard listed anywhere from a mid- to late first-round draft choice.
“He’s definitely an NBA point guard,” said former college coach and ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla. “He reminds me of a Devin Harris type of player — athletic, explosive. If he were at North Carolina or Kentucky, he wouldn’t have the burden of having to score so much. As an NBA point guard, his scoring would be a bonus.
“I don’t think there is a school in America he couldn’t play for.”
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak admires Lillard’s work ethic. Lillard, who rarely takes more than 15 shots a game, scored 22 points in an 80-51 victory against the Utes this season.
“For a kid to work as hard as he works, before and after games and on weekends, it is just one of those intangibles some guys just don’t have,” Krystkowiak said. “I would not bet against him.”
Lillard always had the work ethic and the focus. Rahe loves his guard’s mental toughness.
And this season, Lillard has added a new element to his game — one born from missing last season with a broken foot.
Instead of wallowing in self-pity, Lillard used his time away from the court to improve, to become stronger. He’s attacking the rim, blowing by opponents with a great first step and using his great leaping ability. It’s not unusual to see him dunking on opposing centers.
“I had a lot of time to think and watch a lot of film and lift a lot of weights,” Lillard said, icing a banged-up ankle in a bucket after a recent practice. “My mind automatically said, ‘I am coming back, and I will get better.’ The first thing I noticed, I was settling for jumpers. Now, I get [to the basket] and it helps me get into the flow of the game. I’ll score or they’ll foul me, and I can use the free throws to help my jumper.”
Lillard, like most players, dreams of playing in the NBA. He has yet to reveal his intentions about whether this season at Weber State will be his last. But he’s certainly thinking about the next step.
“I watch to see where I would fit in,” he said. “I compare myself to certain people and see what I could bring to the table.”
First, though, Lillard wants to enjoy what’s left of his time at Weber State and make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
“I love my teammates. It makes me want to enjoy my college experience. I know what got me here. People might say I’m crazy, but if Butler can get to the national championship, why can’t we?”
• Weber State’s 6-foot-2 guard Damian Lillard leads all Division I basketball players with a 25.1 scoring average.
• Lillard, a junior, will finish 2012 as the second-leading scorer in Weber State history.
• Lillard is the front-runner to claim his second Big Sky Conference MVP award.
What the experts say
NBAdraft.net • Ideal size and strength for the position … A standout scorer with the ability to knock down shots as well as strong penetration ability … Has a pretty pull-up off the dribble and has range well past NBA 3-point ... Quality ball handler ... Polished one-on-one skills
Draftexpress.com • Unless he’s able to lead his team to the NCAA Tournament, he may not have many more big games to prove himself, which could make him slightly more difficult to project when he enters the draft, whether it’s this year or after his senior season. Regardless, Lillard has certainly established himself as a hot name in NBA draft circles.
St. Mary’s coach Randy Bennett • “He scored ... but he’s more than that. He can pass, too. He can make plays for others. He can find open guys. He knows the looks, the rolls, the throwbacks. He’s a good player, a really good player.”