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What Is Damian Lillard’s Potential in the NBA?

Friday, February 12, 2016


Damian Lillard

Earlier in the season, Damian Lillard scored 40 points and had 10 assists against the Golden State Warriors. When told that he was the first Portland Trail Blazer to put up those type of numbers in the Moda Center, Lillard said, “I mean, it’s always good to be the first one to do something; especially being a part of an organization that I plan on being a part of for my entire career, so it’s an honor, but I would have liked for it to be in a winning effort.”

“…plan on being a part of for my entire career”

That is something that brings a ton of relief to every fan of the Portland Trail Blazers.

Bill Walton demanded to be traded and sat out a season before leaving Portland.

Clyde Drexler requested a trade to his hometown, Houston.

LaMarcus Aldridge left Portland in free agency to join the San Antonio Spurs.

All of these superstars leaving for bigger markets have made the Portland fan base a little cynical. When Lillard says that he is going to be in Portland for his entire career, some fans take it as fact, while some still don’t believe it. Blazer fans remember when Aldridge said that he planned on staying in Portland his whole career and told us all about his desire to become the greatest Trail Blazer in franchise history.

There is something more sincere about Lillard. It may be his humble childhood, being overlooked in high school, attending a smaller college. It may be that is, and always has been, much more forthcoming with media and the fan base than Aldridge ever was. But for me, it’s because he has no reason to lie. He is not posturing or negotiating for a new contract. Lillard is under contract through 2020-2021.

While Portland can rest assured that Lillard, the foundation of their franchise, is staying put for a long time, the question is; what can Lillard become?

The highlights of his career are well-documented. Two-time NBA All-Star. All-NBA Third Team. Two Time All-Star Skills Challenge Champion. 2013 Rookie of the Year. But yet, there are still tons of people that wonder if Lillard has what it takes to be the leader of a championship team.

I took a look around the league and focused on the point guards and leaders around the league. One comparison stuck out to me as I asked; what can Damian Lillard become in this league?

Steph Curry.

Now don’t stop reading now. I am not crazy comparing Lillard to the reigning league MVP. Check out the charts comparing Curry’s first four season and Lillard’s first four seasons.

Curry is arguably the best shooter that has ever played basketball, evidenced by his sky-high effective field goal percentage. His field goal percentage, three point field goal percentage and steals per game are all better than Lillards’. Curry also missed multiple games in each of the first 4 seasons he was in the league.

Lillard on the other hand has averaged more points and assists, and also has been extremely durable; playing all 82 games each of the three seasons he was in the league. The trajectory in his game has also been more evident from year-to-year in the big statistical categories of points, rebounds, and assists.

While I don’t think that Curry and Lillard are the same player, I do think that Curry has showed folks around the league what the right system, coaching, and development can do for a player.

Some people may call me a homer for coming up with this comparison, so be it. The numbers are there. Lillard’s first 4 years in the league have been better than Curry’s first four years were. Plain and simple.

What’s next for Lillard?

The toughest part of any Star’s career. Development.

All of the greats continued to develop and improve as their careers went on. Michael Jordan became a better defender and system player. LeBron James has continually developed his shot and leadership skills. Curry has improved his ball handling and team defense.

Where can Lillard improve the most, to continue to live up to his comparison to Curry?

1 – Defense – As you can see by the raw numbers of their first 4 seasons in the league, Curry clearly averaged more steals per game. That one number is hard to draw many conclusions from, but does begin to tell the story. Curry started his career as a more aggressive and competent defender than Lillard. But, in my mind, the biggest difference is the defensive system that each player is in. Curry has defenders around him like Andrew Bogut, Andre Iguadola, and Draymond Green. Lillard has been on fairly underwhelming defensive teams.

Lillard can, and will, become a better defender. He is athletic enough to impose his will on that half of the court. As the team around him grows and develops as a defensive unit, it will free Lillard up to take more chances and become more aggressive. Also, the more the team grows offensively, Lillard will be freed up a little more to be able to exert more energy on defense.

2 – Shooting – Now this is something that has a major ceiling. Lillard is a good shooter, not a great shooter. Curry is a great shooter, an All-Time great. Lillard will most likely never catch Curry in this category, but what will come with time is the decision-making when it comes to shooting.

Lillard is a volume-shooter that carries his team on his back. This leads to a lot of forced, and low-percentage shots. In a lot of ways, this is completely necessary, there are limited offensive options surrounding Lillard. As the teams continues to transform through free agency and the draft, Lillard will be freed up to choose his shots and become more of a facilitator and leader. Not to say that there won’t be “Lillard time” occasionally.

If you remember, this Golden State team hasn’t always been the world-beaters that they are today. They drafted Draymond Green. They drafted Harrison Barnes. They sign Andre Iguadola in free agency. All of these acquisitions helped to make Curry the player, leader, and MVP that he is today.

Portland has a very capable front office to make similar, franchise altering moves to help Lillard, and the Blazers improve.

3 – Durability – Now I know that this may be a little crazy, to say that Lillard needs to be durable to become more like Curry. In Lillard’s first 3-full seasons in the league he missed 0 games, ZERO. In Curry’s first 3 seasons he missed 50 games. Lillard has been the epitome of durable, however to improve and become the player that he can be, Lillard needs to stay on the court.

This season Lillard averages 36.1 minutes per game, 8th most in the league. 2014-2015 season Lillard averaged 35.7 minutes per game, 8th most in the league. 2013-2014 season Lillard averaged 35.8 minutes per game, 17th most in the league. 2012-2013 season Lillard averaged 38.6 minutes per game, 2nd most in the game!

In other words, Lillard has played a lot of basketball! This much basketball can leave a player susceptible to injuries. While Lillard is only in his 4th season in the league, he has played all of these minutes per game, and also played 4 season of college basketball. If Lillard can manage his body, and stay on the floor, he can continue to develop into one of the best point guards in the league.

Back to my original question… What is Damian Lillard’s potential in the NBA?

The sky is the limit.

That is the best news for all Portland Trail Blazers fans. Lillard is going to continue to grow, improve, and lead the Blazers for years to come. As he has vowed to play in Portland his whole career, we all get to watch this transformation.

Four years ago, no one around the league would have predicted the astronomic rise of Steph Curry. Who’s to say that Damian Lillard isn’t the next superstar to take the league by storm?

GoLocalPDX partner Oregon Sports News: Since 2011, Oregon Sports News has provided entertaining, hard-hitting local sports news & commentary every weekday. To read more from this author, check out Oregon Sports News by clicking here.


Related Slideshow: 12 of the Greatest Sports Movies of All Time

Hank Stern ranks his top twelve favorite sports films. 

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#8 The Longest Yard

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#7 Slap Shot

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#5 Seabiscuit

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#4 Requiem for a Heavywei

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#3 Hoosiers

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#2 Bull Durham

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#1 Raging Bull

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