After he arrived in Las Vegas for a Team USA minicamp, a handful of people close to Damian Lillard received a text message and picture from the Portland Trail Blazers point guard and reigning NBA Rookie of the Year.
“It was like, ‘Man can you believe I have on this Team USA uniform?’ ” said Raymond Young, who coached Lillard with the AAU Oakland (Calif.) Rebels before he spent four years at Weber State.
The novelty of a small-school player becoming an instant NBA star continues to follow Lillard, despite his play last season freeing him from the shackles of misappropriated expectations. Reporters still ask about his “meteoric” rise and about being regularly overlooked.
One person who remains relatively unimpressed is Lillard himself. However, even he admitted last week that the rapid success he’s enjoyed has made him look at his dreams differently.
“I’ve always had big goals for myself,” he said following a practice at the Mendenhall Center at UNLV, “but I think the fact that things actually started to happen with Rookie of the Year, and playing a lot of minutes, some of the records that I had, everything began to seem a little more possible, a little more real.”
Lillard has never been shy about his goals. Even before last season began, before he went on to average 19 points and 6.5 assists per game, he said he wanted to win Rookie of the Year. By the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend in Houston, he was shooting for an All-Star appearance next year.
That’s just how Lillard operates. He puts his goals in front of him like the rest of us might carry a grocery list.
“Just like he said all of the time last year he wanted to be Rookie of the Year, eventually an All-Star, eventually an Olympian,” Jazz player development assistant Johnnie Bryant said. “Now he just wants to prove he should continue to be in that conversation.”
Bryant and Lillard are both from Oakland, and Bryant, then a personal skills coach, helped train Lillard before both moved on to the NBA before last season.
Both Bryant and Young struggled to say what has changed most for Lillard in the last year. Bryant says, “If anything, he’s hungrier to continue to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke.”
Young acknowledged, though, that as a rookie Lillard “probably woke up in the morning and was like, ‘Damn I’m really here.’ ”
That no doubt extends to Team USA, where he was among 28 players, including Jazz forwards Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors, trying to shoehorn his way onto a squad already loaded with young guards.
“I wanted it when I watched the Olympics,” Lillard said. “That was something I wanted. Obviously, I wanted to make it to the league first. Now that we’re here, it’s just actually real and you realize what you’re working toward and you realize how bad you want it.”
To alleviate the logjam at point guard, Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski had point guards playing off the ball, something Lillard grew comfortable with both in AAU and college.
Still, by the time the FIBA World Cup rolls around next summer, Lillard could be the odd man out behind players such as Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving. There were eight points guards in last week’s minicamp.
“He felt like he had a good week down there,” Young said, then adding, “If he felt like he had a good week, then it was a very good week. He don’t give himself enough credit sometimes.”
Which is something he’s used to overcoming.
Damian Lillard file
• Weber State guard, 2008-2012
• Drafted No. 6 overall in 2012 by Portland Trail Blazers
• Averaged 19 points and 6.5 assists in 2012-13
• Named Rookie of the Year, invited to Team USA minicamp