Two seasons into his professional career, there have been few situations that felt too big for Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard. Whether it’s back-to-back game-winners in the regular season, competing in all five events at All-Star Weekend or simultaneously elating an entire fan base while crushing the dreams of another with a playoff series-clinching shot, Lillard has shown that shrinking away from a challenge apparently isn’t in his DNA.
Which is why Lillard felt no nerves competing against a collection of the best players in the world at the first practice USA Basketball practice on the campus on UNLV in Las Vegas.
“”I’m here for a reason,” said Lillard. “If they didn’t feel like I belonged here, they didn’t have to bring me here, cause a lot of people aren’t here. So I don’t even think about that. Not even once.”
Even with players like LeBron James, Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant sitting out the 2014 FIBA World Cup, there’s no basketball team more difficult in the world to make than USA Basketball Men’s National Team. Given that, one can imagine that the pressure to perform against a preliminary roster comprised of players who would be shoe-ins to make any other country’s national team would be intense, but that’s just not the case for Lillard. Being afraid of competition, even at it’s highest levels, is foreign to Lillard as the teams he hopes to be playing against in Spain come September.
“When you’re on the court with (Kevin Durant), James Harden, Derrick Rose, I know what they can do, playing against them and watching them,” said Lillard. “So I don’t need to go out there and do all this extra stuff when I can make the game simple for myself. I know what I’m capable of. I know I can knock down shots, I can get to the rim, I can compete here. I’m here for a reason. No nerves at all. I’m just playing.”
Though as he notes, Lillard’s not playing the same role he does in Portland as one half of a potent inside-outside duo with power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. That can be difficult for some players, especially when trying to make the final cut by impressing the coaching staff, but when you remove the fear of not making the team from the equation, it becomes easier to settle into a complimentary role.
“I still played, I was myself,” said Lillard. “Obviously I would be more aggressive when I’m playing for (the Trail Blazers). But everybody here can be more aggressive and do more. I think it’s going to take getting in the lane and making that extra pass, getting somebody an easier shot, selling myself to space away from the ball instead of going toward the ball. And I’m just trying to get myself comfortable doing that, instead of just trying to come out here and say, ‘I can do this and I can do that.’ That’s what I’m going to do during the season. But here, I think I need to do more showing what I can do to help this team.”
“These guys are playing 35 to 40 minutes, they’re the dominate players on their teams,” said USA Basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski. “Here, you don’t get as many shots, you don’t get as many minutes, so they can play defense harder, they don’t need to pace themselves.”
Lillard came off the bench for Rose during a scrimmage Monday afternoon and looked as though he was taking Krzyzewski’s message to heart as he hounded Kyrie Irving and John Wall on defense while infrequently looking for his own shot on offense. And while he might not have had any highlight plays, he showed that the role he’d ultimately have on Team USA is one he’s more than willing to fill.
“You’ll see guys who don’t have a reputation for playing hard defense picking up full-court,” said Lillard, possibly using himself as an example. “You’ll see guys doing stuff that basically shows you that there are going sell themselves for the greater good of the team. And that’s what it’s all about. You see the passion that they play with and that’s the difference. That’s what it takes to be able to a part of something like (USA Basketball).”
How Lillard comports himself during the remaining practices and the scrimmage on Friday evening will go a long way to deciding whether he’ll be spending September in Europe as a part of Team USA or in Portland preparing for the 2014-15 NBA season. The competition is stiff, but his odds of making the World Cup roster are in no way the longest he’s faced in his life, let alone as a basketball player. He may fail, as all of us eventually do, but he’s not going to fear the challenge nor come away from the experience empty-handed.
“It’s one of those things where anybody could make (the World Cup roster) and anybody could not make it,” said Lillard. “You can’t be mad if you don’t make it. But if you do make it, you can be really thankful because it can go either way. Everybody’s worthy. Everybody can bring something special to the team. So I think we’ve just got to take advantage of this week, just really work hard, go against each other and try to make each other better. At the end of the week, they’ll decide what they want to decide. But I think we should just take advantage of having this company for a whole week.”