Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
Damian Lillard certainly wasn't a total secret before attending the NBA combine in Chicago earlier this month, having been a third-team all-American following a third outstanding season at Weber State. But it didn't take Lillard long to impress NBA executives and scouts gathered at the annual combine.
"The first day he opened a lot of people's eyes even more," said Wildcat coach Randy Rahe. "He interviewed with seven or eight teams and I heard he was off the charts, which I knew he would be because he's such an intelligent, high-character guy. From there it just took off and he really gained momentum."
ESPN's Chad Ford called Lillard the star of the combine and confirmed that he excelled in the drills and interviews.
"Many of the NBA executives in attendance had never seen him play in person before and the rest had seen him only a handful of times," he wrote. "Lillard shot the lights out, had a couple of terrific dunks in drills and 3-on-3 play, played hard and was very good in interviews with teams."
Since the combine, Lillard's stock has continued to rise and after he was once being considered a mid-first-round pick, most experts believe he'll be a high lottery pick, somewhere between No. 5 and No. 11. Portland at No. 6 and Golden State at No. 7 have been showing a lot of interest and are good possibilities to draft Lillard.
Lillard will almost certainly be the highest-drafted Weber State player ever, surpassing Bob Davis, who was taken No. 14 overall by the Portland Trailblazers, a second-round pick at the time. Weber State has never had a first-round NBA draft pick.
NBA director of scouting Ryan Blake says Lillard will be taken early because he is quick, strong and physical and can hit from NBA range.
"He's a scoring point guard who can get inside, and he's improved his three-point shooting," Blake said. "He's a great free throw shooter; he's versatile as a scorer; he uses the pick-and-roll well; and he can finish in traffic.
"When you have someone with good size, good strength, good speed and you have someone who can shoot the ball and play defense, that's just a great package."
Lillard is one of 14 prospects to be invited by the NBA to be on hand for the draft and was part of a press conference with those players Wednesday at the Westin Hotel near Times Square in New York City.
Lillard was the only "mid-major" player on hand in a group that included three players from North Carolina, two from Kentucky, two from Connecticut as well as schools such as Duke, Kansas, Syracuse and Florida.
He was questioned about playing at a lower level of competition than the others, but Lillard said it didn't bother him, pointing to successful NBA players such as Steve Nash, George Hill and Norris Cole, who have succeeded after coming from mid-majors.
"It doesn't bother me," he said. "There are a lot of mid-major guys in the league and they are showing that the level of competition really isn't a big deal. I think it's more talk than reality."
When asked about the possibility of going No. 5 to the Sacramento Kings, who drafted BYU's Jimmer Fredette last year, Lillard said he could fit in with a team that already has Tyreke Evans, Isaiah Thomas and Fredette at the guardline.
"I feel I could adjust to any situation I'm in, that's how I've always been" he said. "Just the fact that they have scoring guards on their team, I think I could play off them. I won't always have to play point guard."
Even though NBA teams know all about Lillard and his talents, he's the first to admit he is still a mystery to the average fan and will always have to prove himself. That's been the case with Lillard ever since he arrived in Ogden four years ago.
He wasn't highly recruited out of high school in Oakland and once a few bigger programs took notice of him, he stayed loyal to Weber State and Rahe, who was the first to recruit him.
Rahe found out about Lillard thanks to a AAU coach in California who was a good friend of his and told him about Lillard midway through his junior season.
"The first time I saw him play, I said, 'We're not going to get him — he's too good,' " Rahe recalls. "We were lucky — he's a great kid. Every summer while he was here, he made a huge jump."
Lillard was all-Big Sky his freshman year and earned MVP honors after his second year. A foot injury kept him out the next year and he had his finest year last season when he averaged 24.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game, while shooting 41 percent from 3-point range.
Rahe has no doubt Lillard will make it in the NBA.
"Whoever takes him can take comfort in knowing they'll get a guy who comes to play every day and has the mindset he's going to get better," he said. "He's good in every area — he doesn't have any glaring weaknesses — and he's so self-motivated. Nothing will deter him and nothing will throw him off his work ethic and daily regimen of getting better."
Rahe won't be in New Jersey with Lillard and instead will enjoy the draft proceedings with the rest of the Weber State fans in Ogden at the Damian Lillard Draft Day Celebration at The Junction in downtown Ogden. It begins at 4:30 p.m. with a pre-draft party before the draft begins on ESPN.
Lillard is allowed to bring five people with him to the draft and Rahe encouraged him to take his family members along.
"This is all about Damian," Rahe said. "This is his time. I'm excited for him."
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