Damian Lillard's star shines despite exhibition fizzle
Houston • And with the first overall pick in one of the silliest manifestations of the NBA season, Shaquille O'Neal selected Damian Lillard.
Yes, that was a five-position upgrade from last spring's NBA lottery, the draft that mattered and turned the mid-major point guard with high-major talent into an international superstar. But this other thing, a made-for-TNT draft that conscripted the former Weber State guard into the folderol of the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend a game full of fundamental horrors served as just the latest reminder of the trajectory the former Weber State guard is on.
"It's been crazy," the Portland Trail Blazers point guard said Friday, "just because it happened so fast. I can still remember specific days going to class."
The likely Rookie of the Year, Lillard led "Team Shaq" in Friday's Rising Stars Challenge, which pitted the top rookies and second-year players against one another. Lillard finished with 18 points in the defense-deficient showcase; his team lost 163-135 to a team assembled by O'Neal nemesis Charles Barkley. Denver forward Kenneth Faried was named MVP after scoring 40 points on 18-of-22 shooting. Lillard, an Oakland, Calif., native, will also participate in Saturday's Skills Challenge.
Less than a year after leaving Weber State, Lillard politely answered repeated questions from the world's basketball media, fulfilled community obligations and appeared in a television promotion alongside hip-hop artist will.i.am.
While many players are sleepy-eyed and perfunctory through the obligations of All-Star Weekend, Lillard was charming and, even, grateful.
"Now that I've come to this point," Lillard said, "I think that I appreciate [the attention] a little more than get tired of it."
The story is well worn in Utah. Lightly recruited out of high school, Lillard was chased by Weber State coach Randy Rahe and wound up in the least likely of places. But to the great big NBA, Lillard is still something of a wonder. Thoughtful and mature, he is the product of four years of college, a quality generally reserved for second-round picks.
But Lillard told the world Friday that he had no regrets about his background or where he went to college.
"I fit there," he said of Weber State. "The mid-major's not as much talent so it's more of a grind. There's a bunch of conditioning, and there's hard stuff. Coaches will yell at you. It's really hard on you. Not saying they don't at big majors, but it's â¦ you have got to be more strict as a mid-major."
At least you do if you want to become a star.
Lillard, who regularly trained with Utah Jazz player development assistant Johnnie Bryant, averages 18.3 points and 6.5 assists for the Trail Blazers, a Northwest Division rival of the Jazz who entered the All-Star break three games out of eighth place in the Western Conference.
He casually deflects questions about Rookie of the Year, although he is the favorite by such a wide margin it's difficult to imagine any other result.
However, the award does matter to Lillard. It seems to matter, in part, because people still ask him about Weber State, about being a surprise at every level of his career. It's not that he wants to stop surprising people, he just wants to increase the standard. Being named the top rookie would send a message, Lillard said.
"I think that would say a lot," he said, "because of where I come from, being overlooked out of high school, under the radar for a long time in college, and when I got drafted people probably felt like I was drafted too high and maybe didn't belong."
But Lillard isn't trying to distance himself from those roots. He's still closely tied to the his alma mater, and said he followed Weber State's 87-63 win Thursday over rival Montana closely, and texted former teammates after seeing the result.
"My last three years there," said, "Montana beat us in the conference tournament every time, so we didn't make the [NCAA] Tournament."
Now, he's preoccupied with getting to the playoffs. While he said he hopes to return to another All-Star Game as a participant in the main attraction, he wouldn't admit to it being a top priority.
"Hopefully," he said, "our team is winning games. I think if my team is winning that means I'm playing well. That will give me a better chance."
Lillard the Rising Star
O Former Weber State guard Damian Lillard finishes with 18 points in Rising Stars Challenge, but his Team Shaq loses 163-135.
• Lillard averages 18.4 points and 6.5 assists for the Portland Trail Blazers.
• Denver's Kenneth Faried scores 40 points and is named MVP of Rising Stars Challenge.
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