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Kragthorpe: Damian Lillard making his point for Team USA

Published July 29, 2014 3:50 pm

Surrounded by stars in Vegas, ex-Weber star is more of a distributor in bid to join team.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Las Vegas

Something is missing from Damian Lillard's jersey.

Never mind that different keystrokes produce the number "0" and the letter "O." Lillard likes to wear that number in the NBA because the letter symbolizes Oakland, Ogden and Oregon — his hometown, college town and state of professional employment, respectively.

This week's apparel tells another story in Lillard's development. He's assigned No. 22 in this training camp, but the "USA" letters on the jersey mean much more than the number. The former Weber State star is trying out for the team that will compete in the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain in September.

And he recognizes that this training camp in UNLV's practice facility is unlike anything he's experienced.

Asked about his play in the camp's opening session, Lillard said, "I was myself." But then he caught himself, discussing how a point guard's role naturally changes in this setting, surrounded by the likes of Kevin Durant.

"Obviously, I would be more aggressive when I'm playing for [Portland]," he said. "I think it's going to take getting into the lane and making that extra pass and getting somebody an easier shot. … I'm just trying to get myself comfortable doing that, instead of coming out here and saying, 'I can do this and I can do that.' "

So this is another step in the evolution of Lillard, who already has done more in his first two pro seasons than any player from a Utah school in any sport. He's a unanimous Rookie of the Year and an All-Star, and he's almost certain to make Team USA's final roster this summer. Lillard may even become the starting point guard, which would make him a strong candidate for the 2016 Olympic team.

What's so intriguing about Lillard is he knows he belongs at an elite level, yet he's grounded. He's loyal to Weber State, as he showed in March by chartering a plane to Ogden for the Big Sky Conference tournament championship game — having secured a promise from coach Randy Rahe that the Wildcats would qualify for it, because Lillard already had paid for the flight.

In telling the story, Rahe joked about Lillard's frugal nature. Let's just say he likes to get a return on his investments.

He's putting his full effort into this week's camp, just like always, and expecting to get a lot out of it. Considering the level of point guard talent — Chicago's Derrick Rose, Cleveland's Kyrie Irving, Golden State's Stephen Curry and Washington's John Wall — that's available to Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff, Lillard is not getting ahead of himself in this competition.

"You can't be mad if you don't make it," he said, "but if you do make it, you've got to be really thankful because it could go either way. At the end of the week, they'll decide what they want to decide, but I think we should take advantage of just having this company for a week."

Viewed another way, those guys are in Lillard's company in Las Vegas. He represents the future of point guard play in the NBA, while already performing at a high standard. Playing for the Select Team that scrimmages against the Team USA hopefuls, the Jazz's Trey Burke is welcoming the opportunity to learn from Lillard and the other point guards. All of them have something to prove this week.

Of course, that's how Lillard approaches everything he does. He'll always be the kid from Weber State of the Big Sky Conference, an unlikely launching point for a No. 6 pick in the NBA draft. That was just the start of big things for Lillard beyond Ogden, with more to come.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt