Utah Jazz: Blazers rookie Damian Lillard has strong ties to Jazz assistant
They were both guards from "The Town," compactly packaged tough guys who would join the others from Oakland, Calif., and reach the NBA. One would be a lottery pick. The other would see his playing career end in college and turn to coaching.
They're divergent. They're the same.
Former Weber State star Damian Lillard returns to Utah on Thursday as a rookie point guard for the Portland Trail Blazers. Down the floor, in a chair behind the Utah Jazz bench he will see Johnnie Bryant, one of the most influential in a large group of people who helped Lillard catapult from a small-college scorer into the NBA Draft's No. 6 pick and starter.
"I think Johnnie was a little bit of an older brother in some ways," said Randy Rahe, Lillard's coach at Weber State and an assistant at Utah when Bryant played for the Utes.
Lillard has been the toast of Portland in the preseason. He scored 21 points against the Jazz on Monday at the Rose Garden, and leads the Blazers with 17 points per game in the preseason.
When the Trail Blazers drafted Lillard in June, he was shown smiling on ESPN and interviewed non-stop by national media. On Sept. 25, when the Jazz hired Bryant who became a skills coach after his Utes career ended in 2008 as their player development assistant, the move passed with little fanfare. The announcement was a 281-word press release.
After he was hired, Bryant, 27, sent Lillard a text message that said, "We're in the league at the same time."
Oakland is a city known for its point guards. The city's streets turned out Gary Payton and Jason Kidd. In last year's draft, it sent Lillard and Oregon State's Jared Cunningham, who was drafted by Dallas, into the pros.
"It's real competitive out there," Bryant said. "There's players everywhere. That's one of those things: To get your respect, you have to work. You have to grind it out."
Bryant went to Bishop O'Dowd High School; Lillard attended Oakland High. They may have never met, save a shared mentor. While at San Francisco City College, Bryant trained with Raymond Young, a local coach who also ran the Oakland Rebels, an AAU team.
Young had an emerging guard he wanted Bryant to work with. The first drill, Bryant said, was a dribbling drill through cones. Bryant was struck by the way Lillard, though skinny, could handle the ball. Bryant went on to his first year at Utah, but whenever he went home, he and Lillard played together.
"I took a lot from how hard he worked," Lillard said. "He helped me really make that adjustment from high school to college. â¦ Somebody else that's a starting point guard at a Division I school will help me make the adjustment."
When it came time to select a college, Bryant was in Lillard's ear. Lillard didn't receive the offers a future NBA point guard might expect, but Rahe had moved on to Weber State and wanted Lillard to commit to the Wildcats. Bryant helped sell Lillard on the idea.
"I think it eased some of the concern he may have had about coming out to Utah," Rahe said.
Once Lillard was with the Wildcats, Young told Bryant, "Johnnie, look out for Dame when he comes up to Utah."
"There were times when Johnnie would drive from Salt Lake to Ogden and spend time with Damian and the whole coaching staff at Weber State," Young said. "I think that meant a lot to Damian and showed that another Bay Area guy does care about him."
On Thursday, Lillard will be introduced at EnergySolutions Arena. He will likely be greeted more warmly than most other opposing players. Then the lights will dim and the Jazz players and coaching staff will be listed off. But not the player development assistant. He will sit in his seat behind the bench and take notes.
And cheer out loud only for the Jazz.
About Damian Lillard
• Leads the Portland Trail Blazers in preseason scoring with 17 points per game.
• Attended Wednesday's purple-and-white scrimmage at Weber State.
• Jazz player development assistant Johnnie Bryant is also from Oakland and a longtime mentor of Lillard's.
Lillard in the preseason
Oct. 10 at L.A. Lakers • 14 points, 7 assists
Oct. 12 at Phoenix • 15 points, 5 assists
Oct. 15 at Sacramento • 20 points, 3 assists
Oct. 19 vs. Golden State • 15 points, 7 assists
Oct 22 vs. Jazz • 21 points, 8 assists
Portland at Utah
P At EnergySolutions Arena
Tipoff • Wednesday, 7 p.m.
Radio • 1280 AM, 960 AM, 97.5 FM
About the Jazz • The only Jazz starter not averaging double-digit scoring in the preseason is Al Jefferson, who averages 9.7 points. â¦ The Jazz play their final preseason game before opening the regular season on Oct. 31 against Dallas. â¦ The Jazz gave up 41 first-quarter points on Monday in a 120-114 loss at Portland.
About the Blazers • Small forward Nicolas Batum led the Blazers with 27 points against the Jazz on Monday. â¦ Former Jazz guard Ronnie Price is not expected to play as he continues to recover from a right ankle injury. â¦ The roster currently contains eight rookies, including former Weber State star Damian Lillard.