Ten months ago, when Neil Olshey was still the Clippers general manager, he flew to an unlikely college in a small city in Utah to see a point guard he didn't need. The Clippers had one of the best point guards in the NBA (Chris Paul), one of the best back-ups (Mo Williams) and one of the most promising prospects (Eric Bledsoe). They even had a veteran point playing off the ball (Chauncey Billups). "But things happen quickly in our league," Olshey said. "You never know what changes will be made." Olshey was one of many scouts who made the pilgrimage to Ogden, Utah, and the Dee Events Center at Weber State, a mid-major school within the Big Sky Conference. Everyone there agreed that Damian Lillard was a first-round pick. "What we wanted to find out," Olshey said, "is if he'd made the jump to franchise-caliber point guard."
In the first week of June, Olshey left the Clippers, a team stocked with point guards but devoid of prominent draft picks, for the Trail Blazers, who had no reliable point guard but two lottery picks. During his interview with Blazers owner Paul Allen, Olshey talked about Lillard almost as much as himself. "It was basically the whole interview," Olshey said. "The biggest need was clearly point guard and Damian was the guy. There was no question he was the guy." The Blazers wanted to draft him at No. 11, but feared, for good reason, that he would be gone, so they snagged him sixth.
Meet the newest member of the little-man revolution, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound power guard with boundless range, who reminds Olshey of Billups and others of Deron Williams. Lillard is not as quick as Derrick Rose or as explosive as Russell Westbrook, but he is a superior shooter, with similar strength. He also spent four years at a college that prepared him for something beyond the Sweet 16, so he grasps the game in a way most one-and-done bonus babies do not. After a practice early in training camp, Lillard explained what seemed like a simple pass he made to power forward J.J. Hickson:
"I came off a high screen on the left wing, dribbled toward the middle, and his man showed," Lillard said. "When you come off that screen, you see a man in the opposite corner, and it's his job to check J.J. rolling to the basket. But if I look to that opposite corner, he'll think I'm making a skip pass over there, and he'll cheat a little back to that side. Then I can throw the bounce pass to J.J. for the dunk."
The transition from Big Sky to NBA may seem severe, but for Lillard, it has been remarkably smooth. He is averaging 19.3 points, with a turnover ratio of 8:3, and hasn't even found his stroke yet, shooting 29 percent from behind the arc compared to 39 percent in college. He tallied 20 points or more against his first three opponents, until Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle designed a defense to force the ball out of his hands. During camp, Lillard told Olshey, "I can't believe how easy this is." He was not trying to brag. He was just marveling at how well the unlikely college in the small city in Utah prepared him for the big stage.
As a freshman at Weber State, Lillard declared after a practice, "I'm going to the NBA." He laughs at the memory now. "I thought it was all about getting in games and playing great, and for guys at Kentucky, it probably is," Lillard said. "But for me it was all about the work I did outside the game."
After Lillard made his NBA proclamation, assistant coach Phil Beckner told him: "You're clueless. For one thing, you don't know the pick-and-roll." With his ability to shoot, turn the corner and make quick decisions, Lillard possessed all the tools necessary to flourish in the pick-and-roll. But he did not recognize the nuances of the NBA's most popular set.
Beckner presented Lillard with an eight-minute DVD of Steve Nash, Tony Parker and Williams, running 10 pick-and-rolls each. Lillard watched the video five times. "That was the beginning of everything," he said. "I wanted to do what those guys were doing."
I wrote about the preponderance of the pick-and-roll for the NBA preview issue of the magazine and found that most rookies are drafted without any real understanding of the league's pet play. Lillard and Beckner worked together before every practice, focusing almost exclusively on the pick-and-roll, Beckner acting as the defender and a trash can or folding chair as the screener.
"Pick-and-roll is such a big part of the NBA and we knew he had a chance to get there," said Weber State head coach Randy Rahe. "It only made sense to add more of it to our offense." College teams typically run simple brush screens to free dribblers, but Rahe came up with five different pick-and-roll actions for Lillard and called them as many as 15 times per game. "All our analytics told us he was the most effective pick-and-roll player in college basketball," Olshey said. "Then you go to see him and he's running middle pick-and-rolls, side pick-and-rolls, and he's involving others. He had a translatable skill."
Olshey needed a pick-and-roll partner for power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, one of the best at diving to the rim and popping out for mid-range jumpers, and Lillard was the ideal candidate. Less than four minutes into the Blazers opener against the Lakers, Lillard took a handoff on the right wing from Aldridge, drew Nash and Pau Gasol into a double-team, and tossed a nifty behind-the-back left-handed bounce pass to Aldridge for a wide open jumper. At Weber State, Lillard relied on the pick-and-roll to create shots. In Portland, he will use it to facilitate for Aldridge. "He needs to pull [Aldridge's] man as far away as possible so L.A. can get an easy look or make the defense rotate," says Blazers assistant David Vanterpool, who tutors Lillard. "Damian has to play off L.A." Lillard finished the Lakers game with 23 points, 11 assists and enough contorted layups in traffic to warrant Rose comparisons.
Every year, it seems, the NBA unveils at least one new point guard who helps drive the league forward: Paul and Williams, Rose, Westbrook and Rajon Rondo, and most recently Kyrie Irving, Ricky Rubio and Jeremy Lin. The season is only a week old and it's already obvious who's next.