Damian Lillard's journey from overlooked point guard to lottery pick

Born and raised in Oakland, Calif., Damian Lillard grew up yearning to one day become the next great point guard to come out of the basketball mecca known for producing floor general legends like Gary Payton and Jason Kidd.

But despite a tireless work ethic and unquestioned drive to be great, Lillard’s chances of becoming Oakland’s next big thing were slim.

While Lillard was a standout for both Oakland High School and the AAU Oakland Rebels, it was the Oakland Soliders who annually fielded calls from the top collegiate programs in the country.

The Soliders featured an alumni base of LeBron James, Chauncey Billups, Brandon Jennings, Drew Gooden, and Kendrick Perkins, just to name a few, and were widely considered the top team on the circuit. They would bring in kids from all over the country and make regular appearances on ESPNU, and even ESPN from time to time.

Lillard’s games with the Rebels, on the other hand, didn’t even make local cable.

“He was a little bit under the radar,” said Lillard’s former head coach at Weber State, Randy Rahe. “He played for an AAU team out of Northern California that wasn’t one of the more high profile teams. There are three or four other teams from that area who supposedly get the best players.”

It was the Soldiers who always lured in — and still to this day lure in — the top players in the country. During Lillard’s days in the AAU circuit the Soldiers squad featured the likes of Brandon Jennings (the No. 1 player in the 2008 class), Drew Gordon (the No. 24 player), and Matt Simpkins (who was No. 80 overall, according to Rivals), among others.

While the Soldiers players got all the publicity, Lillard was nowhere to be found on ESPN’s rankings. In fact, Lillard was the 48th-ranked point guard in his class, according to ESPNU. He was a two-star recuit, according to Rivals.com, and had no national, state, or positional ranking listed.

On the flip side, Jennings fielded offers from every school in the country, Gordon had everyone from UCLA to Duke and Kentucky after him, and Simpkins received looks from most major Pac-10 schools as well as Memphis.

John Calipari, Lute Olson, and Ben Howland weren’t showing up on Lillard’s caller ID. Instead, prior to Lillard’s senior season, it was coach Rahe of Weber State who was the first one to recruit and eventually offer Lillard.

Having yet to receive any major looks, the 6-foot-2, 189-pound guard committed to the Wildcats. After an impressive senior season a host of mid-major schools from St. Mary’s to San Diego State came after him, but when push came to shove Lillard stayed loyal to Rahe and Weber State.

“He was different in the recruiting, Damian didn’t care about levels. It’s really important for him to be around people he trusted. He’s a very loyal kid,” Rahe said. “I think he made the right choice because as s a freshman he was heavily counted on to be a good player so he just kept getting better. If he had gone to a Pac-12 school and had to sit a couple years he may not have progressed like he did playing for us.”

Lillard’s lack of recruitment motivated him. Rahe called him a “self-made player” and said he spent more time in the gym than anyone he has coached in 22 years. Lillard wore his drive on his sleeve, right next to the chip on his shoulder that developed from always being overlooked at a young age.

He eventually blossomed into a two-time Big Sky Player of the Year and last season averaged 24.5 points per game, good for second in the NCAA. Lillard broke every school record possible and gained national recognition for his combination of athleticism and shooting stroke.

“We knew he was going to be a good player for us, but he worked so hard and he’s an unbelievably self-motivated kid just to try and work to become the best he can be,” Rahe said. “When we got him there was no way I would have known he would end up where he is today.”

Today, Lillard is the No. 1-rated point guard in the 2012 NBA Draft. He’s ranked ahead of four-star point guards like Kendall Marshall and five-star point guards like Marquis Teague. As for the former Soldiers from his 2008 class that received the offers he didn’t, Jennings is the only one with a big-time NBA career ahead of him.

Gordon, who committed to UCLA before transferring to New Mexico, is expected to go late in the second round or go undrafted. Then there’s Simpkins, who signed on to play with Calipari in Memphis out of high school, was booted from the Tigers, bounced around from program to program and is currently out of Division I basketball.

Lillard still has yet to step foot in an NBA game, but he’s already proven wrong every coach who spurned him for another player out of his area. Most experts expect him to be a top-10 pick, but should he fall the Suns could finally find their heir to Steve Nash.

Lillard thrives in transition (27.3 percent of his offense), he’s great out of the pick and roll (1.04 points per possession), he can shoot it from distance (40.9 percent from three), and he’s a freak athlete (6-foot-8 wingspan with a 39.5-inch vertical).

He most likely won’t slide to No. 13, but if he does it could be a match made in heaven.

“I think up-tempo really suits Damian well. He’s very good in the open court. He’s a good decision maker. He’s explosive, he can really push the ball. He can score in the open floor,” Rahe said. “I think a team that really wants to get up and down hard and push at every opportunity is a good fit.”

Photo in video by Lighting Bryan Photography.

Tags: Damian Lillard

  • Scott

    My vote is to see better use of irregular past tense verbs. That is, if there’s a traditional irregular form, then use it.

    So “strove” instead of “strived.” And “lit” instead of “lighted,” and so on. Let’s not let this lazy trend of ending all past tense verbs with “-ed” get so far out of hand we no longer say “swam” but (cringe) say “swimmed!”


    As for Lillard, I still say he sounds like a small combo guard to me. Put him at SG and imagine he is Barbosa, or a slightly smaller Marcus Thornton.

    If he can really play PG, then great. But he’s practically dead last in creating plays for others, he’s really only aware of himself on the court, his turnovers are low because he doesn’t pass, and even on defense his ISO defense is better than his team defense (if I’m understanding the video properly). I’m pretty sure his shooting woes can be fixed, and maybe his defensive intensity increased, but I don’t know how you make him more aware of others on the court.

    To me, he’s another player like Shannon Brown. You throw the ball to him as a finisher, because he doesn’t facilitate, he just sees the basket. And he can’t be counted on for defense. In the NBA, unless his defense improves, he’ll probably end up playing for the 2nd unit.

    He’s a remarkable athlete and scorer, but his limitations are significant. If the analysis is correct, he should go lower than the top 10, and perhaps lower than the top 20.

    Wroten might end up a better team player than Lillard.

  • Scott

    Last year the Suns drafted Markieff Morris; not because he had the most star potential, but because they had a need at his position and he was the most mature and skilled NBA-ready player.

    I suspect that this year the draft will be along similar lines, in that the Suns may well draft Meyers Leonard because of their need at C. Leonard is basically a younger Robin Lopez who rebounds. Like Lopez, a lot of his game is raw, he may tend on occasion toward mental distraction, and he may have difficulty keeping his emotions in check. So he’s very much a direct replacement for Lopez, but with the ability to rebound.

    Even if the Suns keep Lopez, the Suns are small up front due to the injury to Frye. Frye might not be back till January.

    Optionally, the Suns could go for a more reliable offense and solid motor by picking Tyler Zeller (another “lesser” brother). If Leonard is like Lopez, Zeller is more like Gortat; not so much a rim protector as a mature player who can defend, shoot and rebound.

    Zeller would be a particularly good choice if the Suns are entertaining any thoughts of trading Gortat as part of a deal for a star.

    Zeller might also have the ability, like Gortat or Frye, to play at the PF spot, not so much as an outside shooter, perhaps, but hooks and short jumpers, a bit like Pau Gasol.

    Zeller is the more mature pick, who could possibly play PF/C, while Leonard is based more on potentials.

  • Rich Anthony, (KJL)

    The Suns are not drafting either of those guys.

    They will draft a 2, a 3, or a 4. I’d say a point guard but Marshal and Lillard will surely be gone by the time they pick at 13.

  • Matt

    Lol if his best case is Jeff Teague, that’s not that great of a case. I think he has the potential to be a poor man’s Derrick Rose, he obviously isn’t as athletic as Rose but he’s closer, he lacks the great footwork and touch around the rim that makes Rose Rose, however he does have a great jumper. So we’ll see I guess

  • JZ

    Lillard will be gone in the Top 10 to the Raptors, Blazers, or Hornets. Luckily, Phoenix has a similar player in Aaron Brooks if they resign him which they definitely should for what they gave up to get him.

  • Scott

    @JZ -

    On the other hand, if poor judgment was exercised in getting Brooks, you only compound the pain if you sign him to a longer contract.

    Sometimes it is better to just walk away.

  • Bam

    In your article don’t you mean it was the Soldiers who always lured…

    • http://www.valleyofthesuns.com Michael Schwartz

      @Bam Thanks, yes, got that fixed.