Exhibition games in the summer don’t technically mean much, but when you bring your team back from a 17-point halftime deficit, the results can’t be ignored. Portland Trailblazers first-round draft pick Damian Lillard is in Portland to take control, if you judge him based off the Blazers’ 85-82 Summer League opening win over the New Orleans Hornets.
Lillard finished his professional debut game with 25 points, four assists and four rebounds at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas on Sunday leaving many Blazers fans to wonder, in mid-July, what is to come this October when the season officially starts.
In the first half though, Lillard, even to his own admission, may have been uncharacteristically nervous.
“The first half there were some butterflies,” Lillard said. “I was just getting used to it — the speed. There was a lot of athleticism out there. But I think once I calmed down and got comfortable, that’s when I started to play better.”
Leading up to the draft, the plus on Lillard’s side was that despite attending a smaller school, in Weber State, he was a player with a demeanor of confidence and poise.
His knack for scoring seemed to be based off of an ability to break down double-teams and quickly pull-up, knocking down jumpers as he averaged a second-best 24.5 points last season in the NCAA.
In the first half on Sunday, though, Lillard was 2-of-10 in an uneventful showcasing of his skills.
“When I came out, a lot of my shots were jumpers,” Lillard said. “I felt like I needed to get in rhythm, which meant I needed to get to the free throw line, and I needed to get to the rim and draw contact.”
In the second half, Lillard’s demeanor didn’t seem to change. What changed was the pace of the game as he exploded and took control, attacking the Hornets’ defense on pick and rolls and getting easy buckets for himself and his Blazers teammates.
“It all came back to me,” Lillard said. “I was being patient. My shots weren’t falling, but I stuck with it.”
Fellow rookie, and pick-11 overall, Meyers Leonard seemed to be impressed.
“Unbelievable,” Leonard said of Lillard’s performance. “I’ve seen what I need to see out of him. I completely expected it. But now he’s just going to take off from here.”
Blazers’ general manager Neil Olshey has referred to Lillard as the “franchise point-guard” and drafting him over some of college basketball’s bigger names, like the Hornets’ Austin Rivers, who was also available at the sixth spot of the 2012 draft, solidifies that thinking.
The comparisons of Lillard to Blazers great Terry Porter is unfair but in the world of sports, probably a welcomed burden for him who, even as a rookie, said things after Sunday’s victory with the voice of a veteran.
“I really wanted to show people I can make plays and get guys involved,” he said. “I thought I got a lot of guys shots. Any time you can come in and make the guys around you better and get them easy shots, I feel like you’re doing your job and you’re playing well and just making the right plays, and I thought I did that.”
This is the first of what could be many career games in a Blazers uniform for Lillard. And if his first official outing as a Blazer has any indication for his career, the city of Portland and the Rose Garden have a lot to look forward too.