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Damian Lillard on making NBA Live 15 cover, Team USA and LeBron James

Damian Lillard on making NBA Live 15 cover, Team USA and LeBron James Photo:

Damian Lillard’s remarkable ascent from mid-major gem to NBA star continues. The Blazers point guard has been selected as the cover athlete for EA Sports’ NBA LIVE 15, marking the latest achievement in his young career.

The Oakland, Calif. native blossomed into a dominant force in his four years at Weber State — the only school that extended him a Division I scholarship offer — before being drafted sixth overall by Portland in 2012. After winning Rookie of the Year in 2013, Lillard was named third team All-NBA last season and made his first All-Star appearance. A lifelong video gamer, the 24-year-old’s latest honor serves as added validation for his improbable rise to one of the league's elite.

“I think it’s such an honor because of the journey, because of how hard I had to work to earn something like this," Lillard told SI.com. "And to earn my stay in this league, period. Just being a cover athlete is a big deal to me, because when I try to remember a certain year of a game, I gotta go back to who the cover athlete was. When people go back to this one, they’ll remember that Dame Lillard was on the cover, and I’m just glad EA Sports has given me the opportunity to be that guy.”

GOLLIVER: Player-by-player analysis of Team USA's FIBA World Cup roster

LIVE 15, available Oct. 7 on Xbox One and PlayStation 4,  presents significant upgrades from last year’s model, offering revamped visuals and on-court performance. Lillard played a consulting role, sitting down with producers and offering his gaming expertise and criticism to help tailor the project to his standards.

“Five-on-five gameplay didn’t have the depth and polish of an EA SPORTS game and our visuals just weren’t up to expectations for a next-gen title,” said NBA LIVE executive producer Sean O’Brien in an open letter published on the game’s official website. “We’ve been laser-focused on making sure that this isn’t the case with NBA LIVE 15 and I’m really excited with our progress in those two areas.”

Lillard lent his face, style and signature moves to the game and came away satisfied, but still chooses not to play as himself — he prefers his hometown Warriors (“Steph and Klay don’t miss shots,” he explains). The emphasis on authenticity has been a hallmark of LIVE’s marketing, taking in gamer feedback and coming away with more than 500 “core improvements” to the product.

“I think a lot of video games have a lot better graphics than [Live] used to, but now it’s spot-on,” says Lillard. “It’s probably the closest you’re gonna get to how the players look, to how their haircuts are, how their tattoos look, to how their jerseys fit, things like that. And the gameplay is a lot better — I noticed that while I was doing my motion capture, going through my moves, all my shots — I could see it on the big screen while I was doing it, with an in-game character of me imitating every move I made. That’s big for the game, and I think people will really like it.”

Working on LIVE has been just one part of Lillard’s offseason agenda. The point guard was a member of Team USA during its summer U.S. tour before the roster was trimmed to 12 last week.

"I think I’ve grown because of (the opportunity)," Lillard said. "And the experience of playing against the best, getting to play against the top guards every day, you get better from that.”

He’ll get a chance to probe just that as the leader of a 54-win Blazers team that kept its core intact after falling to the eventual champion Spurs in the playoffs, adding only veterans Chris Kaman and Steve Blake. In an offseason where many teams majorly retooled their rosters, Lillard was pleased with the continuity in his team’s approach.

“We’re happy with what we have, and it shows that we believe in what we have,” Lillard explained. “Last year we lost to the champions, and, say we beat the Spurs — we beat them three times in the regular season — say we beat them in the postseason, who knows what happens? What if we would have went to the Finals? You never know. We don’t forget that, we remember that anything could have happened. We gotta come back and do the things that made us a great team last year, and try to move past the second round.”

Lillard also offered his thoughts on LeBron James, whose off-season has been a tad bit higher-profile after leaving the Heat to return to his hometown Cavaliers.

“I think [LeBron] made a great decision,” Lillard said. “I don’t think he could have gone wrong. If he would have stayed in Miami, he’s won two championships there and been to the Finals four times. Going home, there’s nothing wrong with that either — he’s from there, he has unfinished business there, and he kind of left on a sour note. Going home is the perfect feel-good story, and it was almost the right thing to do. I don’t think he could have made a wrong decision, but I think a lot of people are happy with what he did.”

Two unsung players on Team USA World Cup roster
Sports Illustrated's Matt Dollinger explains why Kenneth Faried and Rudy Gay have become unsung players on Team USA's roster, and the impact they'll have in the FIBA World Cup.

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