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 likeand 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.
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.