It seemed like a relatively risky move by the Portland Trail Blazers when they chose to draft Damian Lillard, a product of a mid-major college program, with the sixth overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. But as the old adage goes: the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward.
Lillard’s play this season has been phenomenal, not just for a rookie, but for a starting point guard in the NBA. Through his first 52 games in the Association, Lillard is averaging 18.4 points, 6.5 assist and is even grabbing 3.3 rebounds per game. He’s also shooting a solid 35.3 percent from three-point range.
His scoring average is the seventh-highest average among NBA point guards and is second-highest for Portland. His assists average leads the Trail Blazers as well. The numbers don’t tell everything though, like how confident and composed Lillard is on the floor and how flawlessly he’s stepped into a leadership role on the team. He’s behaved like a veteran.
One of the only knocks people have against Lillard are that he’s still not a sound defender, averaging only one steal per game and having issues with one-on-one defense and defensive rotations. However, those are things that he can learn as he logs more minutes at the pro-level.
The other real problem that people have with Lillard’s performance this year is that he is only shooting 42.1 percent from the field. But really, that is more of an effect of how dependent the Portland offense is upon him. He has the ball in his hands on virtually every possession and the Blazers rely on him to put a good amount of points on the board. For a young player, that normally results in a low shooting percentage.
Between his demeanor and averages, Lillard is reminiscent of another player’s rookie season. This player averaged 18.5 points, 5.4 assists, 1.1 steals and 3.7 boards per game during his rookie season. He shot the ball more efficiently than Lillard, having a 46.9 percent shooting percentage and 39.9 percent three-point percentage. However, he played fewer minutes per game than Lillard is now and struggled on defense in many of the same ways that Lillard currently is.
That player is the Cleveland Cavaliers’ budding superstar Kyrie Irving.
Lillard is submitting a season that is near identical to Irving’s rookie season last year. In case you didn’t know, Irving made an incredible jump this season to where he’s not being mentioned among the NBA’s elite.
Since their rookie seasons are so similar, there’s no reason to believe that Lillard can’t make the same leap next year that Irving has this season. It’d actually probably be more logical for it to happen to Lillard, as he has a better supporting cast in Portland than Irving does in Cleveland.
Either way, the Blazers struck gold in drafting Lillard with only the sixth pick, as he’s likely going to be the Rookie of the Year come season’s end—just like Irving.