Coaches and media alike expect a healthy Damian Lillard to be cutting down nets with his team next March.
The vote was unanimous amongst coaches: Lillard will lead his team to a bid to the NCAA tournament.
In the midst of high expectations, Lillard said he’s not thinking about cutting down the nets. Instead, he’s worried about keeping them empty when he’s defending another star guard — Brockieth Pane — next Tuesday.
“We’ve got a lot of things to fix still, defensively,” Lillard said.”We feel like if we just keep getting better, (the NCAA tournament) will come in time.”
Lillard said the first real test of the season comes to town tomorrow, when Weber State University will play Utah State University at the Dee Events Center. USU’s starting point guard, like Lillard, was voted Preseason Conference Player of the Year for his conference.
“(Pane’s) a real good player,” Lillard said. “He can really push the ball in transition, and he’s aggressive. You know, fearless. Any time you’re matching up with somebody and they’re fearless, it’s always fun, ’cause I’m fearless, and I know it’s going to be a battle.”
Lillard might be more prepared to handle that battle than he was a year ago, when he scored 28 points and dished out two assists to Pane’s 23 points and four assists. Since his season-ending foot injury during a game against the University of Tulsa last December, Lillard has become stronger, quicker and smarter, said WSU Head Coach Randy Rahe.
“Damian’s not one to sit around,” Rahe said. “When he got hurt, what he really did was dive into the weight room. He was in there 4-5 times a week and getting stronger, becoming more explosive.”
Lillard is now benching more than 300 pounds, and he’s a smarter player, too.
“While I was hurt, they didn’t let me drift off into my own thing,” Lillard said. “I was kind of a coach, you know, just seeing everything and watching film and stuff like that. As a coach, there’s a lot of things that you see that you don’t see as a player. I think I’m able to manage the game better than I was before.”
“Damian’s always been really unselfish, but now I think he’s got a really good feel for getting his teammates really involved and sharing the ball and moving the ball early in a game situation,” Rahe said. “He gets so much attention that, early in a game, everybody’s out there looking at him defensively. He’s figured out that, if he gets that ball moving and gets his teammates involved, eventually some of the attention might get off of him, and then things will come a little bit easier for him. He’s done a really good job of that this year. He’s just playing the game, kind of taking what they give him and not forcing the issue and just letting it come to him.”
The work Lillard has put into his game has been impressive to true freshman Mike Brown, who’s expected to contribute as a reserve this year.
“A lot of guys from other teams, when they’re the best player, you know, a lot of it comes naturally and they don’t really think they have to work as hard, and they think they get extra benefits from being the best player,” Brown said. “But Damian, he works harder than anybody on the team. He’s a great example of how hard work pays off.”
If the team puts the work in, Rahe said he expects a big payoff.
“We really like our team,” Rahe said. “We like what we could become. We’ve got a pretty high ceiling for this team as far as what they could become.”
If Lillard and his team do reach expectations, the 6-foot-3-inch guard will likely garner more attention from national media and perhaps NBA scouts. Already, Lillard was rated the 11th-best point guard in the nation by Rivals.com, and he’s showed up in the first round of some online NBA mock drafts. Lillard, though, insists his focus is on his team.
“I think if I get so caught up in what it means for me, I think that’s where I go wrong,” Lillard said. “I just want to keep it about the team.”
If he and his teammates do, he said he likes their chances.
“I expect big things from our team if we can become the team we’re capable of becoming,” Lillard said. “We’re a real coachable team. Whatever the coaches ask of us, you know everybody is willing to do it. Whatever they feel like is best for our team, you know that’s going to be the best opportunity to be the best team possible. Everybody is unselfish. It’s all about the team. I think having an unselfish and coachable team will take us a long way.”