Damian Lillard was already well on his way to winning the NBA Rookie of the Year when he was selected to play in the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge at the 2013 All-Star Weekend in Houston, but there were still doubts about what kind of player he would become. Sure, he was putting up great numbers, but some proposed it was a product of having no competition for minutes while being given a role that allowed for him to put up the kind of numbers necessary to win the Eddie Gottlieb Trophy by unanimous selection.
And even after a historic rookie season, there were questions of whether Lillard could really keep up the pace he set in his first season. Perhaps, seeing as how, he was 23, old by NBA sophomore standards, he had already reached his ceiling. And even if he was playing well, if the Trail Blazers were a perennial lottery team, what did it matter?
But while those doubt might have had merits before, they no longer do today. A year after being recognized as one of the best rookies via inclusion in the Rookie-Sophomore game in Houston, Lillard is now a full-fledged all-star, someone his fellow second-year players look to as a leader of their class.
“Damian Lillard, I mean, all the doubt that he had around him for being from Weber State, look what he’s doing now,” said Pistons center Andre Drummond, who was selected three spots after Lillard in the 2012 Draft. “He’s an all-star, he’s in three of the All-Star Weekend games. I told him this morning that I was real proud of him. He proved a lot of people wrong. I’m just proud to call him my friend and know that he’s doing great things.”
“I’ve seen his growth just from coming form a small school, big chip on his shoulder to obviously playing the way he did last year and taking his game and his team to another level,” said Harrison Barnes, the seventh pick in the 2012 Draft. “Portland missed the playoffs last year, one of the best teams in the West this year, he’s an all-star. I’m obviously proud of him.”
“One thing I love the most about (Lillard) is he’s humble, but at the same time, he still has a chip on his shoulder,” said Bradley Beal, who was drafted three spots ahead of Lillard by the Wizards. “He still feels like he has more to prove and he’ll never stop growing. I always try to compete against him all the time because I feel as though he’s somebody in my class who I can always compete and always try to be better than him. And he’s always trying to be better than me. It’s always good to be able to have somebody like that.”
“For (Lillard), I just think it’s about his confidence and him having that role of being a point guard on his team,” said Portland native Terrence Jones, who was selected by the Rockets with the 18th overall pick in the 2012 draft. “He just has to play with that confidence, especially in the Western Conference where there’s so many tough point guard. I think he’s really taking that challenge.”
One of the things that impresses Lillard’s fellow second-year players the most is his rapid growth from small college prospect to a leader on an NBA team. Talent is a necessity for a young player when it comes to earning the respect of your teammates, but it also requires a certain demeneor, one which his peers would like to emulate.
“Just from last year … he’s growing into being a leader and guys are starting to follow him,” said Drummond. “Some of the stuff he’s doing, I want to be able to do, too, just how he’s a leader to his team. I want to start to grow into that as well.”
Lillard is able to recognize the respect he has among his draft class and the NBA at large while still remaining humble about it, which is one of the traits which has allowed him to be a leader despite having less than two seasons under his belt. He moved among his teammates on the 2014 Rising Stars Challenge roster with the same quiet confidence that he exhibits on the court, a confidence that comes with being on of the best young players in the NBA.
“I just feel like everybody that I was drafted with and the guys after, I feel like they respect what I’ve done,” said Lillard. “Everybody’s goal when you come in the league is to make an impact. You want to be Rookie of the Year and then you want to make all-star teams and you want to win championships and stuff like that. Just the fact that I was Rookie of the Year and now I’ve been blessed enough to become an all-star, that’s kind of the path that everybody wants to take. So I think, more than anything, they just respect it.”
But that respect and success can come with some peril. Lillard knows he won’t remain at the top of his class if he rests on his laurels, which, to some extent, makes his envious of his fellow second-year players in the exact opposite way that they’re envious of him.
“The thing about it is, it’s all coming so fast that I’ve got to keep getting better,” said Lillard. “I’ve got to be able to be consistent and remain at this level. For a guy that hasn’t been an all-star, hasn’t been the rookie of the year, they have something to fight for, they have something to prove. Whereas, because I was Rookie of the Year and now I’m an all-star in just two seasons, I’ve got to keep finding stuff to get better at and keep finding ways to improve.”
Which he’ll need to do if he wants to add a playoff birth to his resume, not to mention a second-consecutive all-star selection.