Weber State's Damian Lillard returns from last season's injury bigger, stronger and more focused
Tom Smart, Deseret News
Damian Lillard is making up for lost time.
Man, oh man, is he ever.
A year ago, just nine games into the season, Weber State University's super-smooth point guard broke a bone in his right foot in a game at Tulsa on Dec. 16, 2010.
Lillard, who was the Big Sky Conference's Most Valuable Player in 2009-10 and was averaging nearly 20 points a game at the time of his injury, missed the remainder of the Wildcats' 2010-11 season.
Flash forward a year. The 6-foot-3 junior guard, granted a medical redshirt year by the NCAA, has returned bigger, stronger and better than ever before, with even more intense desire to play and more determination to make Weber State's opponents pay.
"When I first hurt it, I was kind of in shock," Lillard said. "Then I realized my team needed me to support them, and that our program is much bigger than just me. It took me about a week to get over it, telling myself I'm not going to play this season but my teammates are going to need me cheering them on and being a leader from the bench. And that's what I did.
"I think the biggest thing I got from it was to not take this for granted," Lillard said of being sidelined, forced to watch his teammates play the final 23 games of last season without him on the court. "I missed just being out there and actually being part of the team, physically being on the floor with my teammates and everything and just having fun.
"There's a lot of people that don't get that opportunity that we've got. ... I learned that when I am out here now not to take it for granted and to cherish every moment with my teammates."
And thus far this season, Lillard is not only making up for lost time, but he's taken his game to a whole 'nother level.
After all, he's leading the entire country in scoring, averaging an impressive 26.9 points per game — thanks in part to a career-best 41-point outburst against San Jose State, along with a 36-point performance at St. Mary's and a 31-point night against Southern Utah. Creighton's Doug McDermott ranks second in the nation at 24.0 ppg.
"It's just hard work paying off, that's the way I see it," Lillard said. "It's the best I've every played, because it's the hardest I've ever worked."
Keep in mind that Lillard certainly isn't just some ball-hogging guy without a conscience, or a mad bomber who looks to shoot every time he touches the ball.
To the contrary, he's shooting over 50 percent from the field, including 45 percent from 3-point range, and 88 percent from the foul line. And he's also averaging a team-leading 3.6 assists per game along with 5.8 rebounds per contest, second best for the Wildcats (6-2), whose only losses have come on the road at St. Mary's and BYU.
"The thing that makes Damian a really good player is he's not just a scorer," WSU coach Randy Rahe said. "He rebounds the ball, he passes the ball, he's made a conscious effort to be one of our better defenders on the perimeter, and he wants to guard the best guy on the other team.
"When it's time for him to get an opening and the defense gives him something, he's going to take it. He doesn't need a flurry of shots. There was a guy, remember 'The Microwave,' Vinnie Johnson? His quote was 'I just need a flurry of shots to get myself going.' But Damian's not a high-volume-shot guy; he's a scorer and a very efficient player.
"He's got more pop this year, though, he's got more explosion," the Wildcats' coach said. "And that's due to his work in weight room when he was hurt. He was in that weight room five days a week with a broken foot, and then all summer he worked on his core, he worked on his explosion, and you can just see it. He's got a lot more pop, he's got a little more quickness, too, and more upper body strength. So all those areas have really helped him obviously just become a better player."
Indeed, since he wasn't able to play basketball for several months, Lillard went about building his body to make himself stronger so he could withstand the rigors of another collegiate campaign and all the pounding in the paint that comes with it.
He added 10 more pounds of muscle to his frame, and the results speak for themselves.
"I lifted real hard the whole time I was there, so I got real strong," he said. "I did a lot of swimming and pool workouts, too. I'm a lot quicker and more explosive that I was before.
... I feel like I've basically rebuilt my body. I'm a lot faster and more explosive, too."
Before this season started, some people wondered whether it might be difficult to integrate Lillard back into a Weber State squad which still managed to win 18 games without him.
But Rahe said it wasn't a problem at all, and that his WSU teammates were delighted to have him out on the court with them again.
"It's good for him, it's good for our team, it's good for everybody," Rahe said. "Our guys are excited to have him back, he's excited to be back.
"He's such an unselfish kid. If he was a guy who had to shoot every ball, and it was more about me, me, me, it would be harder. But he's all about team, he's all about winning, he's all about keeping everybody involved. And our players know that.
"Our other guys also know that the game comes easier to them when he's out there because he gets so much attention," Rahe said. "So it's been a very, very easy transition to get back into."
Since returning, the junior from Oakland, Calif., has started climbing Weber State's career scoring list.
Last weekend, Lillard passed Harold Arceneaux and moved into ninth place with 1,365 career points in 79 games. With 18 more points in Friday's road game against California, he'll move past David Johnson and Todd Harper into the seventh spot on WSU's all-time scoring chart.
It appears that Lillard's well-spent time in the weight room and subsequent added strength has helped him when he blows past an opponent and drives to the basket — something he often does, and with great authority. In last Saturday's victory over Southern Utah, he finished one of those dazzling drives with a rim-rattling dunk.
"Every time I bring the ball up in transition or in half-court," he said, "my main focus is to get my defender off balance whether it's to get us into a set more smoothly or whether I can get him off balance and get to the rim.
"I gave him a move and he basically just cleared my way and I got in there and I was able to jump. And once I got up, I knew I was getting to the rim."
That crowd-pleasing play was one of many Lillard has made this season, and one of many more to come.
In the double-overtime victory over San Jose State, his 3-pointer with time running out sent the game into overtime. Then, with the Wildcats trailing by four points late in the first OT, he scored five points in a mili-second span to help get the game into a second overtime. Once there, it was Lillard's driving layup and subsequent three-point play that put the 'Cats on top for good in the closing seconds. He wound up scoring 17 of the Wildcats' 24 points in the two overtime periods.
"Yeah, he finishes pretty well around the basket," Rahe said with a smile. "He works on it all the time. In the summer, you see him working, and he's just constantly working on finishing and getting hit, finishing and getting hit — I've got to be able to finish.
"But all that stuff, when you're successful during the season, it all goes back to the offseason and what did you do to get ready for the season. And nobody prepares himself for the season like he does."
Indeed, for Damian Lillard, it's all about making up for lost time — and making opponents pay.
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