OGDEN — Weber State basketball star Damian Lillard has closed the book on his outstanding collegiate career.
And now he's ready to start writing an exciting new chapter of his life in the National Basketball Association.
Lillard, a 6-foot-3 point guard who just completed his junior season and earned third team All-America and District VIII Player of the Year honors, announced Tuesday that he'll forgo his final of collegiate eligibility to enter his name in this year's NBA Draft.
"I want to thank everyone that has helped me get to this point," Lillard said in a press conference at the Dee Events Center, where he starred for the Wildcats for three-plus seasons and twice earned the Big Sky MVP award. "I have loved my time at Weber State and am looking forward to playing at the next level.
"It was my goal when I started playing, but I think it's like that for everybody in any sport — you want to be a pro. I just believed in myself and I wanted to get it done. A lot of people don't have it in them to make themselves do everything that it takes to get there. I'm just fortunate to have the people around me and the support and the mindset that I did to make it possible.
"I knew what I had to do to be successful — just working on my game and focusing on winning games and doing what I could do to help the team," he said.
Lillard has been closely followed by NBA scouts this past season and is projected to be a first-round draft pick, very possibly a lottery (top-14) selection and could very well be the first point guard chosen in the June draft.
Only two other Big Sky Conference players — Montana's Michael Ray Richardson in 1978 and Eastern Washington's Rodney Stuckey in 2007 — have been taken in the first round. And though Weber State has had 15 players selected in the NBA Draft over the last four-plus decades, Lillard would become the first Wildcat selected since 1985.
"I am extremely proud of Damian and couldn't be happier for him," said WSU head coach Randy Rahe, who recruited Lillard to come to Weber State out of Oakland, Calif.? "He is a terrific player but he's even a better person and has represented us so well.? No one I have been associated with has worked harder than he has.
"He has represented us, our program and our university in a first-class manner, every step of the way. We couldn't have been more proud to have him here. I told him this a little while ago, I appreciate him trusting us to come here. He didn't have to come here four years ago.
"He's more than ready for this opportunity," Rahe said. "We know he's going to do great things and we're just proud of him."
Lillard said his decision to come play at a smaller school like Weber State was his own idea, flying in the face of the advice he had received from several people. And he's glad he trusted his own instincts.
"When I came here, people told me to go to a bigger school," he said. "But I did what I wanted to do and they said 'No, you won't be able to go pro if you go to Weber State, you won't be able to play in the (NCAA) tournament, you won't be able to play against Kentucky and all these other teams.'
"But I did what I wanted to do because I felt like I could do whatever I wanted to do in my life at Weber State and once I put my mind to it, I think I took off from there. And now I have a chance to play in the NBA."
Lillard graciously thanked the crowd that came out for Tuesday's announcement, and he also thanked the Ogden community for accepting and embracing him since he came to Weber State four years ago. Now just a couple of classes short of getting his degree, he expressed gratitude to his teammates and coaches for helping him get to this point in his life — especially after he suffered a broken foot in December of 2010, which wiped out the rest of that season and left him feeling somewhat unsure of his future.
He was granted a medical hardship by the NCAA and was allowed a "do-over" for his junior season, and he responded by turning in one of the greatest individual seasons in Weber State or Big Sky history.
In 2011-12, Lillard averaged 24.5 points per game in leading the Wildcats to a 25-7 overall record. He led the nation in scoring for much of the season and wound up second in the country, and his 784 points and scoring average established new single-season school records. He ranks second on Weber State's career scoring list with 1,934 points — only Bruce Collins scored more — and ranks first or second in the Wildcats' all-time record book in several other statistical categories.
He was named to the Associated Press and the National Association of Basketball Coaches All-America third teams, becoming the first player in Big Sky history to be be so honored, and was also a finalist for the prestigious annual John Wooden, Bob Cousy and Oscar Robertson awards.
Lillard has set his sights mighty high as he enters the next phase of his basketball career.
"I want to be Rookie of the Year," he said. "Some people might say I'm crazy, but that's just something that I've set out for myself. I don't want to just make it to the NBA ... I want to play in the NBA and I want to make something of myself. I don't just want to get there because a lot of people do that and then they just fade away after two or three years. But I want to be Rookie of the Year and I want to be there on All-Star Weekend one day, and that's just what I've set out to do."
The Utah Jazz have shown plenty of interest in Lillard, as scouts and front-office personnel have attended several of the Wildcats' games this season.
And although Lillard said his hometown Golden State Warriors are his favorite NBA team, he certainly wouldn't mind suiting up for the Jazz next season if they call his name on draft night.
"I think it would be cool to stay here and be where I've been for the last four years," he said. "Then I'll be able to be around this program, which wouldn't be bad at all, and I think there would be a lot of people that are fans of Weber State or fans of mine that would support me with the Jazz, and that'd be cool. ... I'd be more than happy to play for them."
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company