Point guard is the hardest position to play at any level of basketball. Very few college point guards are immediately successful in the NBA, which is why Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers has been so impressive.
The Weber State product seems almost completely unfazed by the college-to-NBA transition, already playing like a seasoned veteran. While it has not translated into many wins for the Blazers as of yet, it has made their future much brighter.
Lillard’s averages of 19.3 points, 6.4 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game (as of 11/18/2012) show a mastery of the professional game beyond his years. Many expected Lillard to be a very good NBA point guard, but no one expected him to be this successful this quickly.
His skill set was conducive to the professional game from the beginning. The rap on Lillard coming out of Weber State was that he was a sweet-shooting point guard who actually had very few weaknesses in his game, despite playing against less-than-stellar competition in college.
Lillard averaged 24.5 points per game during his senior season. Unlike many high volume scorers at the college level, Lillard was also extremely efficient, shooting 47 percent from the field, 41 percent from three-point range and 89 percent from the free throw line.
Those mad offensive skills have translated to the NBA pretty well, as Lillard’s NBA shooting percentages in those areas are only slightly lower than those he achieved in college.
While Lillard has always been a natural scorer, he also cultivated elite passing abilities while he was in college. Check out this assortment of highlights, showing Lillard’s passing abilities while at Weber State:
As you can see, Lillard was already adept at passing by the time he entered the NBA ranks. That is usually the biggest hurdle for college point guards making the transition to the NBA.
Playing four full years of college basketball was vital for him to become the player he has, and he is a prime example of why many players need to stay in college for multiple seasons.
However, those passing skills would be no good if Lillard did not have solid players around him to pass the ball to. While he may not have had as many of these types of teammates in college, he most certainly does in Portland.
Lillard has already developed great chemistry with almost all of his teammates, a vital task for a young point guard who is expected to start so early in his career. Despite being a high draft pick, Lillard was lucky enough to go to a team with quite a bit of talent.
LaMarcus Aldridge, J.J. Hickson and Nicolas Batum are far from scrubs. Aldridge has become a superstar himself in recent years, and his presence on this team is one of the biggest reasons for Lillard’s early success.
The pick and roll combination of Aldridge and Lillard has already become lethal, and the latter’s ability to run it so effectively is why he is torching other defenses. Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated quotes Lillard explaining a pick-and-roll situation, proving just how deep his understanding of the play is:
"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."
Aldridge is not averaging more points than he did last season. However, he is averaging the same amount (21 per contest) despite having to share the ball with a rookie point guard in Lillard who shoots 15 times per game on average. The reason is the pick-and-roll.
Check out this compilation of highlights, showing just how in-sync Aldridge and Lillard have become:
The two have played just 10 games together, yet are already filling up highlight videos.
Lillard’s early NBA success will hit some bumps in the road. However, he has already proven that he is here to stay as an effective starter at the point guard position. He will probably be a star there before long.
The reason for it is really a combination of different things. The right situation with Aldridge and company in Portland, four college years spent improving and a natural scoring ability are all why Lillard is successful already at a stage in his career when so many others struggle.