Tough-minded Lillard leaps from mid-major to potential top-10 pick
As prospect evaluations go, Damian Lillard has been through much worse than what he's facing this week at the NBA draft combine in Chicago.
The point guard from little-known Weber State is being sized up from every angle by executives who are still learning about him, still just starting to see this enticing mixture of substance and style from the player who is bridging the enormous gap from mid-major school to possible top-10 pick. This is a fun experience for the 6-foot-3, 195-pound Lillard, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that he's trying to enjoy as he attempts to join the likes of Jason Kidd, Gary Payton and Brian Shaw as the next player from Oakland, Calif., to do big things.
It is, in other words, nothing like that night when he was targeted in a very different way some four years ago.
If the three men who robbed Lillard at gunpoint at the Eastmont bus station had filed their own scouting report, you can bet there would have been a check next to the "toughness" category. Lillard stood alone around 8:30 p.m. after a basketball practice with Oakland High School when the three men approached him just down the street from a police station. They told him to give up his goods -- everything in his pockets and in a backpack that contained his schoolwork and about $20. Lillard refused.
"I said, 'No,' " Lillard recalled recently after his latest workout at Merritt College in Oakland. "I saw the three of them, but two of them were smaller than me."
This was Oakland, after all, the gritty city by the Bay that's not exactly known for timid types. Lillard didn't back down until the weapon was drawn, at which point he says it became the scariest moment of his life.
"When I was telling him 'No,' and they realized I wasn't a punk and that I wasn't going to be a pushover, then he was like, 'What?' and I got him up off me and he backed up and pulled his gun out," Lillard said. "That was when I realized that you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time, that it ain't always about love just because you're from here.
"I had always been around good people. I'd never done anything to anybody, was cool with everybody around here. But it was different to be on the other side, where somebody doesn't care that you're a good dude."
Lillard has been struggling with his hometown since he was small, trying to appreciate the people who support him while protecting himself against the ones whose intentions he questions. For every good neighbor who offers him genuine well wishes on his hoops journey, there's another asking for a handout -- albeit not at gunpoint -- even before he's earned his first NBA paycheck. So Lillard chose the path of solitude, blocking out the pressures and most of the people who surrounded him and developing a singular focus on improving his game.
Before finishing as the country's second-leading scorer last season at 24.5 points per game, he was one of the precious few players in this AAU era who learned the lost art of offensive versatility. He had the athleticism and the size to be the dunking type, but his father, Houston, wasn't about to let the oldest of his three kids chase highlights.
"Everybody [on his youth teams] would always be dunking, and he'd be like, 'Man, why are you doing all that dunking in warmups? You need to be warming up your jumper, shooting off the glass, shooting free throws,' " Lillard said. "He was always telling me, 'You need to shoot. A lot of people can't shoot.' "
There would be no ignoring of this request. His father -- who, with his mother, Gina, was able to provide a stable home life -- was never his coach by official standards. But when he wasn't working for a box company in town, he was Damian's trainer. Damian and his older brother, who is also named Houston, were forced to appreciate the emphasis on below-the-rim play.
"We would have a court, and he would never let me lower my [adjustable rim]," Lillard said. "Everybody else would lower their court and dunk, and he wouldn't let us. He would make us keep it up and shoot the ball. When we played H-O-R-S-E, you had to play left hand H-O-R-S-E. He challenged us.
"And then when we would go play on our own, we would naturally do the stuff he was showing us how to do. He'd be saying, 'Man, y'all need to play left hand H-O-R-S-E,' and we'd be out there shooting jumpers with our left hand, left hand layups, shooting deep threes."
And never knowing how well those skills would serve him.
"The more I started to shoot, to get a lot of reps up, the more I started to make a lot of shots," Lillard said. "And then I started to hold myself to a standard, like, 'All right, I'm going to make 10 shots, but I'm only going to give myself 12 shots to make 10. And if I don't, then I'm going to stand in this spot until I make 10 of 12.' I think that's when I started to be a shotmaker."
The regulars at Weber State -- all 6,000 or so of them who attend the team's home games -- have seen Lillard's repertoire for the last three-plus years. He is a scoring point guard, a Russell Westbrook-type when it comes to aggressively penetrating the paint but whose shot is better than that of the Oklahoma City point guard when he was coming out of UCLA in 2008. His athleticism was mostly a secret until last season, when Lillard estimates that he dunked 20 times during games and turned heads while doing it. And true to his roots, Lillard -- who went to the same high school as Kidd (St. Joseph's) during his freshman and sophomore seasons but transferred to Oakland High because of a lack of playing time -- has proved to be a more than capable defender, too.
Those skills will be honed against Payton soon. The Glove -- as he was known during his defensively dominant days with the Seattle SuperSonics -- shares agents with Lillard (the Oakland-based Aaron Goodwin) and is planning to work out with him before the draft.
"Oakland breeds toughness, and guys who don't back down and will guard whoever," Lillard said. "So I definitely want to hold that standard so people see that I'm an Oakland guard. I've got that same fire to me as those other guards, and hopefully I'll prove myself."
Lillard's combination of talent and drive are considered to be among the best in the draft. Most talent evaluators regard him as the top point guard, with North Carolina's pass-first Kendall Marshall the likely runner-up and Washington's Tony Wroten a distant third.
But Lillard said he didn't start believing he could play in the NBA until the summer of 2010. He was coming off a sophomore season in which he had been named the Big Sky Conference MVP and led the Wildcats to a second straight regular-season title. He decided to stay in Ogden, Utah, to take his training "to the next level" rather than head home. He trained at 6 a.m. for six days a week with one of his most trusted hoops teachers. The payoff wasn't immediate -- Lillard sustained a foot injury nine games into the 2010-11 season and received a medical redshirt -- but last season it all came together as he improved his production across the board (including raising his shooting to 46.7 percent and three-point mark to 40.9 percent) and became the first player in Big Sky history to be named to
"That's when it got real serious, and I got a lot better," Lillard said of his offseason work two years ago. "I had to sacrifice a lot, to go to bed early damn near every night in the summer just so I could not be sleepy and tired the next morning to work out."
Not much has changed in that regard. As Lillard concluded a 90-minute workout recently, he kept it in overdrive until the end while working with Aalim Moor of the Advanced Sports Training Institute in Oakland. With every cut, every sprint and every drill, he let out the kind of deep grunt that's typically reserved for the tennis court.
Afterward, Lillard discussed how his experiences have left him scarred in ways that have nothing to do with that night he was robbed. His left bicep is covered with an inscription of Psalm 37, a tattoo he got after being inspired one Sunday at his Oakland church following his freshman season in Utah.
"It's about not letting anything sway you from what you believe; keep your faith strong," Lillard said. "It kind of stuck with me because I felt like in my career, I knew I wanted to be an NBA player, but there are people who would say, 'Man, you go to Weber State. You're too small.' You'd have a lot of people trying to make me believe that I wouldn't be able to do it, so that's what kind of pushed me."