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.”
According to Shams Charania of The Vertical, Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard will not play for Team USA at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in order to rest and continue rehabilitating the plantar fasciitis injury that dogged the 6-3 for much of the 2015-16 season. I can confirm this report.
Though Lillard was able to play through the injury after missing seven games in late December, the pain caused by the plantar fasciitis in his left foot never really went away. He received treatment on his foot throughout the season, though the most effective approach to the injury, which causes extreme pain on the bottom of the foot and heel, is rest, which is obviously hard to get when you’re the leader and best player on a team trying to make the postseason. By forgoing the month-long lead up to the Olympics and the Games themselves, Lillard should have the recuperation time he’ll need to go into Portland’s 2016 training camp completely healthy.
Charnania is also reporting that Lillard was hoping for more time to make the decision before being pressed by Team USA for a commitment one way or another. This could very well be true, though if being completely healthy and rested for the start of the 2016-17 NBA season is Lillard’s motivation for declining a Team USA invite, it’s hard to figure how another week or two would change his decision.
Lillard initially declined being a part of the pool that Team USA draws their roster from, though he ultimately relented despite not feeling particularly optimistic about his chances of being named to the Olympic team after being passed over for the FIBA World Cup team in 2014. But between players opting to rest in preparation for the upcoming season and the myriad of concerns regarding the 2016 Games, the number of candidates has dwindled to the point where Lillard would have been a lock to make the Olympic team had he chosen to participate.
But Lillard opting for rest over Rio doesn’t mean you won’t have a Trail Blazer to root for during the Olympics, as Al-Farouq Aminu and the rest of Team Nigeria (a team that also includes former Trail Blazer Ike Diogu and former Oregon Duck Chamberlain Oguchi) have qualified for the 2016 Games after winning AfroBasket 2015 in Tunisia. And CJ McCollum has also been invited to play on the USA Select Team, whose purpose is to help the USA National Team prepare for international events, though players from the Select team have been promoted to the National team, with the most recent example being Mason Plumlee making the 2014 World Cup team.
Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard is currently barnstorming through Asia as a part of the adidas “Take On Summer” tour. He’s meeting fans, instructing young players, working on his dance moves and generally having a good time in one of the most basketball-obsessed places in the world.
But even though it’s already Tuesday in Asia, it’s still Monday here in the United States, which means Lillard has a new track to post on his Soundcloud account under his nom de rap “DameDOLLA.” And this week, it’s a freestyle featuring V.I.P., one of Lillard’s regular collaborators, entitled “Shook Ones”…
A few select four bars from Lillard’s latest offering…
Last of a dying breed and they’re taking me for granted
I represent the ones working for it, nothing handed
The world is all backwards. How we lazy and demanding?
We ain’t working towards dreams we’re just working towards mansions
I see my people struggle when they still don’t ask for nothing
We always gonna keep it solid, I know when the times are toughest
I know when they gonna be fine and i know when to give them something
Don’t ever try to finesse me, I know when a sucker bluffing
Good stuff. “Shook Ones” is just the latest of Lillard’s growing number of tracks, which include Soldier In The Game, Full Stomach, Why?, Free Bands, The Villains and last week’s Isley. All of these tracks and more can be found on Lillard’s Soundcloud page.
In between playing a few rounds of golf and enjoying some of Oregon’s finest beverages (I’m assuming), Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts joined Chris Mannix on “The Vertical” podcast to discuss his past as a player and coach and Portland’s unexpected 2015-16 season…
Adrian Wojnarowski, NBA oracle and head of “The Vertical,” leads off the podcast, with Stotts’ segment with Mannix starting just before the 42 minute mark. Whoever put the post together was kind enough to break down the topics in case you don’t have time to listen to the whole thing, and I’ve transcribed a few segments for your reading pleasure…
Stotts on CJ McCollum’s season, which culminated with the third-year guard being named the NBA’s Most Improved Player…
“I knew he was going to have a good year and I knew he would probably be in the conversation for Most Improved. Now, I wouldn’t have said how many points he was going to average or anything else, but I knew that the opportunity was going to be there and he was going to take full advantage of it because he’s extremely skilled, he can put the ball in the basket and. There were some question marks — one was his health — because he had had injuries each of the three previous seasons, we made him our backup point guard, that was something that he hadn’t done at this level. So there were certainly question marks in certain areas, but the fact that he could score and do what he can do well, I don’t think that surprised anybody within our organization.”
Stotts on Damian Lillard using slights from the media, perceived or otherwise, as motivation…
“I will say in this day and age, I think everybody knows what everybody is saying about everybody. If they don’t read it, a friend reads it or a friend retweets it or forwards the tweet. It’s really hard not to know what’s going on out there and people can try and say, ‘No, I don’t pay any attention to that’ but Damian is a very honest person and he’s true to himself. To say that he doesn’t know what is being said, it wouldn’t be truthful. I think a lot of players and a lot of people in general use that as motivation. I find it funny how people think that Damian is alone with that because you have goals and he wants to do well, he wants to prove what he can do. I think it’s more about what he’s capable of rather than what people are saying.”