Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard is the early favorite to win Rookie of the Year, and yet it was only six years ago that he remembers a decisive conversation with a high school coach that ended sadly.
Lillard's potential was trending badly. He was a sophomore who had transferred once already, and now he was looking to move to his third school in three years.
"St. Joseph [of Notre Dame in Alameda, Calif.] was where Jason Kidd went, and that's where I went my sophomore year,'' said Lillard, who grew up in nearby Oakland. "It was a private school and I struggled there because it was a lot of wealthy kids. I wasn't playing at all, my parents were paying this money for me to go to this good school. So at the end of that year I met with the coach, and he was basically telling me he wasn't sure about me. My parents couldn't keep paying that money and me not being comfortable being there, so I transferred to Oakland High.''
As he sat across from the coach, worrying that his dreams were receding from his reach, Lillard could not possibly have had any idea of the outcome -- that he would be averaging 19.1 points and 6.3 assists and making 38.9 percent of his threes as an NBA rookie.
"I always wanted to be an NBA player, and as a kid I was always saying I'm going to make it to the NBA,'' he said. "But in high school I was just thinking I need to get a scholarship. How can I be thinking about the NBA if I haven't even gotten it done in high school?''
He couldn't realize that these setbacks were going to bring out the NBA player in him. He was playing in a high school basketball world that celebrates 15-year-olds as can't-miss stars. The NBA is loaded with young talents who grew up more highly rated than Lillard, and six years later -- now that it matters -- Lillard is outperforming all of them.
"A lot of the kids who might have all the hype at 13 or 14, they're playing with guys who have the same hype,'' Lillard said. "I wasn't around players who had everything handed to them, and the free trips -- we had to pay for our AAU trips, pay for our team shoes. We had to fundraise. So I think being around that was what shaped the type of person that I am.''
He and his teammates on the AAU Oakland Rebels used to pile into their coach's truck and drive to Berkeley, where they hustled to sell magazine subscriptions to raise money for trips.
"Our parents had to pay what we couldn't fundraise -- flights and hotels and shoes and all our uniforms,'' Lillard said. "All that stuff cost a lot of money.''
He took nothing for granted when he transferred to Oakland High School, where he played well enough to earn a scholarship to Weber State in Ogden, Utah. Lillard spent four years at college, leaving him one class short of the degree he hopes to earn next summer. He
These kinds of stories make Lillard appear to be a hard man. In fact, he is quick to smile and is mature in the same way that Brandon Roy was able separate himself from other rookies when he arrived in Portland to win the 2006-07 Rookie of the Year.
"I don't really believe that compliments make you soft,'' he said, laughing. "But I think when people constantly give you compliments, they must feel the need to always give you those compliments and shower you with them and make you feel like a confident person. I think people who need to be complimented all the time aren't really confident. There are a lot of people who need people to say, 'Oh, you're so good at this, you did a really good job at this' -- just for them to feel comfortable and confident. I feel like that would not be me.''
Lillard had been starting at point guard for two years at Weber State when he suffered a season-ending broken foot nine games into his junior year. During his recovery, he studied DVDs of his previous games while taking notes to compile a list of 10 areas he needed to improve. His jump shot was too flat, so he sat on a chair and shot high rainbow jumpers over the net of the rebounding machine that fed the ball to him. Each day he aimed to make 200 shots from the chair, followed by another 600 while standing.
He had no idea that he was turning himself into a Rookie of the Year candidate while his foot was mending. He entered last season as a redshirt junior uncertain of his NBA prospects.
"My coaches at Weber State pushed me hard in my workouts, practices and games," he said. "The guy I worked with in college most of the time, he would always tell me, 'You know you're not good enough. You work hard, but yesterday you only shot -- you didn't get a workout in.' He was really hard on me.''
Weber State won 20 or more games in each of Lillard's three full seasons. Last year he ranked No. 2 nationally in scoring with 24.5 points for the 25-7 Wildcats. And yet assistant coach Phil Beckner stayed on top of him.
"He was like, 'I know you saw those 20 [NBA] scouts sitting over there -- just stay focused,' " Lillard said. "Once we realized that I was probably going to be a first-round pick, he started to say, 'Right now you're probably a top-25 pick, so don't let it go to your head.' So I started to believe that: a top-25 pick.''
It was as if he had kept his head down his whole life, focusing on the next step, the next workout, the next threatening weakness to be strengthened if he wanted to survive. Then he looked up last June, as if for the first time, and was amazed by the view. He was in the so-called green room of the NBA draft. The Blazers were selecting him as the No. 6 pick.
There is more for Lillard to learn, of course. He is an excellent shooter who is forced to take difficult shots because the rebuilding Blazers lack for better options. He became the first player to score at least 20 points in his first three NBA games since Grant Hill in 1994.
"He doesn't play like a rookie, but he has the speed and quickness that you can tell he's got some pop,'' Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "One of the things that the older players get is understandiing change of pace, change of speed, slow to fast and vice versa. That's one area that you would say that an older guy like a [Chauncey] Billups or a Chris Paul is gauging the game.''
Which is to say that Lillard has yet to grasp those nuances. Based on his calm demeanor and his refusal to let others see when he's worried or in over his head, he's likely to develop his sense for the game. He already has the athleticism of a 40-inch vertical leap to go with the wisdom of a player who hasn't depended on his athleticism to see him through. Lillard is in that rare and balanced place in his career of knowing he belongs in the NBA and not quite yet comprehending that he has made it this far.
"That's exactly where I am,'' he said. "I feel like everything I've been through, my family has been through, and how hard I've worked for it, I can really say that I've worked hard to be here. But there are probably a lot of people who worked hard and were talented who didn't make it. So I feel like I belong here, but at the same time I'm talking to LaMarcus Aldridge, who I've been watching for six years in the NBA, and I'm talking to him and knowing I'm on the same team with him. And sometimes I sit in my hotel room and it's like, Man, I'm really here.''
Here to stay.