Damian Lillard’s rookie season has consisted of 45 games, 815 points, 292 assists and at least one indelible image.
A crossover. A lean. A shot. A jubilant former small-college star with his arms extended, forming a giant “V” after making a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired. With that shot over the New Orleans Hornets on Dec. 16, the Portland rookie added an exclamation point to weeks of polished play.
“I had a few opportunities to win games for us at the end, and I didn’t,” Lillard told The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday, one day before his Portland Trail Blazers play the Utah Jazz. “They believed in me one more time against New Orleans, and I was able to knock one down.”
How can anyone not believe in Lillard at this point? The former Weber State All-American was picked sixth in June’s draft and has guided the Trail Blazers to a 23-22 record. They are 11/2 games behind the Jazz in the Northwest Division. Lillard forms a fearsome pairing with All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge and is atop most objective rankings of this year’s rookies. His average of 18.1 points per game is the best among rookies by nearly four points, and he is one of just four players in the NBA to average 18 or more points and six or more assists and shoot at least 42 percent from the field. The others? LeBron James, Tony Parker, and last year’s Rookie of the Year, Cleveland guard Kyrie Irving.
“I want to be the Rookie of the Year,” Lillard said. “That’s not my primary focus — I really want to be in the playoffs this year. I think as long as I’m doing what I’m doing and helping my team win games, our success as a team will mean I’m playing well, and I think that will lead to individual success.”
On Friday, Lillard will play his first regular-season game at EnergySolutions Arena (he scored 12 points in a preseason game on Oct. 25).
A year ago this week, Lillard was preparing for a game against Portland State in which he scored 40 points and led Weber State to a 92-79 win over the team that plays across the river from the Rose Garden in a 1,500-seat arena.
“In college he had a scoring mentality,” Jazz point guard Jamaal Tinsley said. “He just translated that over to the NBA and sometimes it’s hard for small guards like that to do that, and he did a good job.”
It’s the Damian Lillard cliché, that as a college player he existed in a bubble of anonymity, one who was surrounded by doubters, all because he went played collegiately at Weber State instead of, say, Kentucky — where No. 1 pick Anthony Davis played.
But Lillard believes it.
“That’s why it all came down to what I did in pre-draft,” he said, “and I was able to back up everything I said in my interviews.”
The Jazz were one of the first teams to start scouting Lillard. Coach Tyrone Corbin said that while he expected the point guard to have success in the NBA, he didn’t expect it to come so quickly.
“I’m surprised at how smart he is for a young point guard,” Corbin said. “Understanding who he is in this league and playing his game from college to where he is now in this league and now that transition not taking long.”
Lillard knows he has surprised some people. But it should come as no shock that he isn’t among them.
“I never set out for how many points or how many assists,” he said, “or what level I was going to play. But I knew I was going to be the best. So no, I’m not surprised.”
A closer look
• Former Weber State point guard Damian Lillard leads NBA rookies with 18.1 points per game.
• Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin says Lillard is already one of the top guards in the NBA.
• The Portland Trail Blazers are 23-22 and 11/2 games behind the Jazz in the Northwest Division.
Trail Blazers at Jazz
O At EnergySolutions Arena
Tipoff • 7 p.m.
TV • ROOT. Radio • 1280 AM, 1600 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 25-21; Blazers 23-22
Season series • First game
Last meeting • Jazz, 96-94 (April 26, 2012)
About the Jazz • They have won 10 of their last 13 games. ... They have won seven of their last eight at home. ... C Al Jefferson is their leading scorer (17.2 ppg). ... Jefferson has reached double figures in 18 straight games. ... G/F Gordon Hayward is doubtful (shoulder). G Mo Williams (thumb) remains sidelined.
About the Trail Blazers • They have won three of their last four games. ... They are 11/2 games behind seventh-place Utah in the Western Conference standings.