Sitting next to unarguably the biggest basketball star in Weber State University history 13 months ago, even head coach Randy Rahe was surprised by the biggest goal young point guard Damian Lillard had when he announced he would enter the NBA draft.
“I want to be Rookie of the Year,” Lillard said. “Some people might say I’m crazy, but that’s just something that I have set out for myself.”
Now, a month after Lillard accomplished that goal, Rahe said he will never doubt him again.
“Had you asked me at the start of the season, ‘Would he win Rookie of the Year?’, I would have been skeptical,” Rahe said. “But (not) anymore; any time he says he is going to do something, I’ll believe him. I’ll never doubt him ever.”
Having never seen Lillard play before, I was skeptical as well. I wasn’t attending Weber State at the time. I don’t often think of Weber State University as the college that produces NBA-level talent. Only 15 players from Weber State have ever been drafted into the NBA, and until Lillard, none in the first round.
Lillard was out to prove himself. He came from a conference that many said didn’t have the talent necessary to help challenge the top point guard available in the draft. Would he be good enough? Was he athletic enough? Those were the questions many people had as they put an asterisk next to his name.
Lillard wasn’t fazed. He had been doubted before and proven his critics wrong. So he went to work.
He prepared for the draft by working with Indiana Pacers assistant coach Brian Shaw, who was previously an assistant coach to Phil Jackson. Shaw put Lillard through all the conditioning workouts he had, and Lillard did them all, and then asked for more.
Rahe said he saw this same approach when Lillard came to WSU as a freshman. Lillard had a goal to be the best. Every summer, he worked constantly on his weaknesses and made huge jumps in his game.
Lillard went on to be first-team all-league in his freshman season, then he built on that and won the Big Sky Conference MVP award twice. Lillard made believers out of many who watched him play. Lillard grew into an NBA player in his three full seasons with the Wildcats.
As he entered the NBA draft, he was a relatively unknown player from WSU in Ogden, Utah. He was taken sixth overall by the Portland Trail Blazers.
Lillard started out a little tentative, deferring to the veterans to make plays while he tried to keep them involved and happy. As he became more acclimated to the pace of the game and his ability to score, Lillard again made a jump. He started to dictate the game. He started to draw the attention of analysts and fans alike.
Lillard went on to average 19.0 points and 6.5 assists in his rookie season. He led the league in minutes played. He became just the fourth player to be a unanimous choice as Rookie of the Year.
The nation, along the course of the season, began to learn what WSU basketball fans had learned long ago: ‘This kid can play.’
Now, with a nation of believers, Lillard still isn’t done. He has new goals and new aspirations. He wants to become an all-star and maybe even the MVP of the league, and win at least one championship. And who are we to doubt him now? Lillard has shown that he can accomplish anything he sets his mind to. He has the determination and the confidence to succeed.
“I’ll just say this: Nothing surprises me with Damian anymore,” Rahe said.
With the confidence and the blessing of one of the men closest to him, Lillard is poised to be one of the greats. But it is his own will that will be the deciding factor, and he has no shortness of it. The sky is the limit for this young Weber alum. I’m excited to see what’s next.