http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/lee_jenkins/11/08/damian-lillard-portland-trail-blazers/index.html?sct=nba_wr_a3Ten months ago, when Neil Olshey was still the Clippers general manager, he flew to an unlikely college in a small city in Utah to see a point guard he didn't need. The Clippers had one of the best point guards in the NBA (Chris Paul), one of the best back-ups (Mo Williams) and one of the most promising prospects (Eric Bledsoe). They even had a veteran point playing off the ball (Chauncey Billups). "But things happen quickly in our league," Olshey said. "You never know what changes will be made." Olshey was one of many scouts who made the pilgrimage to Ogden, Utah, and the Dee Events Center at Weber State, a mid-major school within the Big Sky Conference. Everyone there agreed that Damian Lillard was a first-round pick. "What we wanted to find out," Olshey said, "is if he'd made the jump to franchise-caliber point guard."
In the first week of June, Olshey left the Clippers, a team stocked with point guards but devoid of prominent draft picks, for the Trail Blazers, who had no reliable point guard but two lottery picks. During his interview with Blazers owner Paul Allen, Olshey talked about Lillard almost as much as himself. "It was basically the whole interview," Olshey said. "The biggest need was clearly point guard and Damian was the guy. There was no question he was the guy." The Blazers wanted to draft him at No. 11, but feared, for good reason, that he would be gone, so they snagged him sixth.
Meet the newest member of the little-man revolution, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound power guard with boundless range, who reminds Olshey of Billups and others of Deron Williams. Lillard is not as quick as Derrick Rose or as explosive as Russell Westbrook, but he is a superior shooter, with similar strength. He also spent four years at a college that prepared him for something beyond the Sweet 16, so he grasps the game in a way most one-and-done bonus babies do not. After a practice early in training camp, Lillard explained what seemed like a simple pass he made to power forward J.J. Hickson:
"I came off a high screen on the left wing, dribbled toward the middle, and his man showed," Lillard said. "When you come off that screen, you see a man in the opposite corner, and it's his job to check J.J. rolling to the basket. But if I look to that opposite corner, he'll think I'm making a skip pass over there, and he'll cheat a little back to that side. Then I can throw the bounce pass to J.J. for the dunk."
The transition from Big Sky to NBA may seem severe, but for Lillard, it has been remarkably smooth. He is averaging 19.3 points, with a turnover ratio of 8:3, and hasn't even found his stroke yet, shooting 29 percent from behind the arc compared to 39 percent in college. He tallied 20 points or more against his first three opponents, until Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle designed a defense to force the ball out of his hands. During camp, Lillard told Olshey, "I can't believe how easy this is." He was not trying to brag. He was just marveling at how well the unlikely college in the small city in Utah prepared him for the big stage.
As a freshman at Weber State, Lillard declared after a practice, "I'm going to the NBA." He laughs at the memory now. "I thought it was all about getting in games and playing great, and for guys at Kentucky, it probably is," Lillard said. "But for me it was all about the work I did outside the game."