Damian Lillard’s transition from Weber State to the NBA was overwhelming.
Not for him, as is becoming apparent by his status as one of the league’s top 10 scorers. But for Weber State coach Randy Rahe, there was a moment when it all hit home in an emotional way.
Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers visited EnergySolutions Arena for a preseason game against the Jazz in October, and Rahe stood on the sideline during warmups, reliving Lillard’s journey from Ogden to the NBA.
"I almost broke down," Rahe said recently. "No kid in the NBA has worked harder to be where he is. I know that for a fact."
It was one thing when Lillard became the No. 6 pick in the NBA draft in June, but his performance through the first one-fourth of the season is another matter entirely. He’s averaging 19.3 points and 6.3 assists, shooting 43.6 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from 3-point range. Thanks partly to New Orleans center Anthony Davis’ injuries, Lillard is the early favorite for NBA Rookie of the Year.
"I’ll never be surprised by anything that kid does," Rahe said.
Yet this is all somewhat stunning to the rest of us, considering where Lillard was at this time last year. Having recovered from a foot injury that caused him to miss most of the 2010-11 season, the point guard was a junior in eligibility, and hardly anyone in Ogden envisioned him leaving school early, much less becoming even a first-round draft choice.
By mid-January, the outlook was changing. NBA scouts were attending the Wildcats’ games by the dozen and Lillard’s stock was rising rapidly.
The unfinished part of Lillard’s college career was never playing in the NCAA Tournament, but nobody could question his impact on Weber State’s program. Rahe traces the quality of his November recruiting class directly to Lillard’s making the Wildcat brand known.
Lillard and the WSU coaching staff were a major thread of a lengthy Sports Illustrated analysis of the pick-and-roll play, a piece that concluded Lillard made the NBA "because of Weber State" — as opposed to overcoming the mid-major program’s limitations.
"I’ll be honest with you, I wish I and my staff could take more credit for Damian. We can’t," Rahe said. "I mean, Damian’s a self-made guy. My staff did an incredible job of developing him, [but] Damian did the work."
Lillard obviously was well prepared for the NBA after four years (counting his redshirt season) in Ogden. "He’s mature; you can tell he came in ready," said WSU’s Davion Berry, a childhood friend in Oakland, Calif. "Everybody knew he had it, and it’s showing right now."
Like any rookie, Lillard has played inconsistently. Yet maybe the most impressive aspect of his season is how he responded to a recent slump. In four consecutive losses to begin a seven-game trip, Lillard made only 16 of 59 (.271) shots from the field. But as the trek continued at Indiana, Charlotte, and Cleveland, Lillard made 24 of 48 shots and scored 23, 24 and 24 points as the Blazers won two of three games.
That’s a sign of toughness and self-beliefs, traits he demonstrated in college. Beyond that, he’s admired in Ogden for being the same, humble person as ever.
"Some of these guys get in the NBA and they’re worried about the money and the fame and the cool," Rahe said. "He couldn’t care less about that stuff. And that’s why he’s going to be good. He just wants to be really good."
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