The rumors are true: In addition to competing in the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge (also known as the Rookie-Sophomore Game) Friday night of All-Star Weekend and his first All-Star Game Sunday night, Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard will defend his Taco Bell Skills Challenge title, compete in the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest and finish up his Saturday night in New Orleans by being one of the six participants in the Sprite Slam Dunk contest.
“I think, because I’m capable of doing them all and I was probably going to be shooting and doing Skills, once I got invited to the All-Star Game it was obviously an opportunity to have somebody do all of them,” said Lillard. “It wasn’t something that I reached out for and I don’t think the NBA kind of wanted me to do it from the jump either. I just think that, with me being in the All-Star Game and being a second-year player, so I have to play in the Rookie/Sophomore Game and winning Skills and wanting to shoot, it only makes sense to do them all.”
Lillard will be the first player in NBA All-Star history to compete in five events, which is one of the motivating factors in his decision.
“That was a big part of it,” said Lillard. “Because that’s obviously an opportunity for me to put my name on All-Star Weekend and be the first person to do something like that. Especially on that Saturday night. Because that’s a big part of it. The dunk contest, the Three-Point Shootout, Skills, just the fact that I could be all over that, that was a big thing for me.”
Lillard is the first Trail Blazer since Rudy Fernandez at All-Star Weekend 2009 in Phoenix to be invited to compete in the Dunk Contest. It’s been a much longer drought for Blazers in the Three-Point shootout, with Cliff Robinson being the last player to represent Rip City in that even during the 1996 All-Star Weekend in San Antonio. No Trail Blazer has ever won either event.
“It’s kind of like, I’m expanding as a brand, kind of opening more eyes to who I am,” said Lillard. “Also, for the Trail Blazers. It’ll always come back to my team. I think that’s an opportunity for our team. It’ll be more focused on our team.”
Though he’s not really known as a dunker (according to NBA.com/stats, Lillard has just eight dunks this season), Lillard is excited for the challenge of competing against some of the highest-flyers in the NBA.
“Only eight dunks, that means my legs are fresh,” joked Lillard. “I can get a lot more dunking in … The contest will be short. I’ve got to go out there and show some of the tricks that I do.”
“I know I can dunk and do a lot more dunks than people probably think I can,” said Lillard. “So it’s going to be fun to have that on my side. ”
The Sprite Slam Dunk contest field includes Indiana Pacer swingman Paul George, Toronto Raptors guard Terrence Ross, Washington Wizard’s point guard John Wall, Golden State’s Harris Barnes and Sacramento Kings rookie Ben McLemore in the field. Of this year’s participants, only George and Wall are also playing in Sunday night’s All-Star Game. Ross, a Portland native, won the contest last year during All-Star Saturday night at the Toyota Center in Houston, albeit in a field featuring much lower profile players than this year’s lineup.
Also at issue is the timing of the Dunk Contest, which is the final event on All-Star Saturday. While neither the Skills Challenge nor Three-Point Contest are particularly demanding, both events do require exertion, particularly in the lower body. And that’s to say nothing of the adrenaline expended while being the focal point of an arena full of fans. Considering that Lillard’s vertical leap isn’t that of some of his opponents, he might have to find other ways to impress or figure out adjustments if he’s at all fatigued from the first two events, though he said he’s confident he’ll be up to the task.
“In the Skills you’re going through a course and making passes,” said Lillard. “It’s pretty light. It’s not heavy at all. We warmup before games like that. The Three-Point Shootout is spot-up three-pointers so it’s not like I’m going to worry about having energy. It’ll be a big crowd and I’m sure that adrenaline and just being in front of that crowd will help me be able to probably jump higher than I normally do.”
While Lillard might be a long shot to win the the dunk contest, he’ll have to be considered one of the favorites to take the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest crown.
“I wanted to shoot in the Three-Point Contest,” said Lillard, “and I think that’ll be the one that I’m most excited about.”
He’s third in the NBA this season in three-pointers made with 140 while shooting a very respectable 41 percent from beyond the arc.
His percentages from certain areas on the floor also bode well for his chances, as he shoots 42 percent from the left side center, 46 percent from the right side center and a whopping 62 percent from the left corner. On the other hand, he’s a much better shooter from three when shooting pullups (68 percent) and step backs (68 percent) than he is on regular jump shots (37 percent), which are more akin to the shots taken in the three-point shootout.
“In the game, a lot of times they don’t leave me to get many spot-up opportunities,” explained Lillard. “I shoot those shots all the time when I’m getting reps in. I think the thing that I have to get used to is getting it off a rack. Which side I like to pick it up from, obviously doing it within the time that we have.”
And unlike the dunk contest, where handicapping the competition is somewhat difficult due to the vagaries of the scoring system, the field in the three-point shootout is undeniably strong. Lillard will be up against Kyrie Irving (35 percent), who won the event last year, Washington’s Bradley Beal (41 percent), Brooklyn’s Joe Johnson (39 percent), Orlando’s Arron Afflalo (43 percent), Golden State’s Stephen Curry (40 percent), San Antonio’s Marco Belinelli (44 percent) and Minnesota’s Kevin Love (38 percent).
Lillard will defend his Taco Bell Skills Challenge title after being the first rookie to win the event last year in Houston. He bested Jrue Holiday, Jeff Teague, Brandon Knight, Jeremy Lin and Tony Parker to come away with the trophy in his rookie season.
As for the Rookie-Sophomore Game, Lillard was “drafted” by Grant Hill’s team for the Rookie-Sophomore Game alongside the likes of Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond and Harrison Barnes.
Some questioned whether Lillard was putting himself at risk of fatigue when news of Lillard participating in five events during All-Star Weekend broke prior to the official announcement, which Lillard brushed off.
“If you pay attention to it, the Skills is two rounds, maybe a minute a piece,” said Lillard. “That’s two minutes. The Three-Point Contest is probably two minutes. The dunk contest will probably take five. And then the Rookie-Sophomore Game is not like a real regular season game. So I’m not going to be out there exerting all of my energy, playing as hard as I would for the Trail Blazers. And who knows how many minutes I’ll play in the All-Star Game. So, in reality, it’s probably 45 minutes of work actually on the court. I don’t really think I’ll be tired from that.”
The BBVA Rising Stars Challenge tips off at 6 PM on Feb. 14, events on All-Star Saturday night begin at 5 PM on Feb. 15 with the weekend culminating with the All-Star Game on Feb. 16. All events will be televised on TNT.