Randy Hollis: Weber State's Lillard playing like MVP at summer league

Published: Saturday, July 21 2012 10:00 p.m. MDT

He may very well turn out to be the best NBA player — and certainly the best point guard — to come out of the Beehive State since Andre Miller finished up his brilliant career at the University of Utah in 1999.

This past week, he's been busy proving himself NBA-worthy in the Las Vegas Summer League, where he's playing for a West Coast team that missed the playoffs last year.

And so far, he's had a couple of downright spectacular performances.

Of course, we're talking about ... Damian Lillard.

What? You thought we were talking about Jimmer again?

Aw, go Fredetteaboutit!

Lillard, the former Weber State star who was taken by the Portland Trail Blazers with the sixth selection in the NBA Draft last month, has definitely been lighting it up in the city of a billion lights, where none has shone brighter than the multi-talented 6-foot-3 guard over the last week.

Through his first four games, he averaged 26.5 points, 5.3 assists and 4 rebounds a game for the Trail Blazers' summer league entry, earning rave reviews and much praise along the way, with many observers considering him the league's undisputed MVP.

This probably does not surprise Weber State fans who watched and appreciated Lillard's impressive progression as a basketball player for the past four years.

Nor does it surprise the Utah Jazz front office, which scouted Lillard extensively last season and had him ranked at or near the top of their draft board.

But before we gush too much about Lillard being the next big thing in the NBA, we must keep in mind that this is just the summer league — and definitely not the NBA's regular season.

And even though Lillard scored 25, 27, 31 and 23 points in his first four appearances in a Portland uniform, doubters would quickly remind us that another 6-foot-3 guard, Jerryd Bayless, averaged 29.8 ppg for the Trail Blazers on his way to Summer League MVP honors in 2008.

Since then, Bayless has been traded twice and has averaged a much more modest 8.1 ppg over his first four NBA seasons.

But Bayless only played one year of college basketball before declaring for the draft, while Lillard spent four years at Weber State, where he was the nation's second-leading scorer last season. And, with his ability to penetrate, pass, shoot the 3 and play defense, he seems more than ready to play at the next level.

Yes, Lillard is the real deal.

OK, I admit it — I'm a Weber State grad who has covered the Wildcats' always-strong but lower-profile program off and on for the last 35 years. So I'm probably more than a little biased by my Purple Pride.

But Lillard's athletic ability and competitiveness, combined with a great work ethic, team-first attitude, and confident yet still humble personality makes him the kind of young man that makes those folks in Ogden mighty proud. And rightfully so.

After all, the Las Vegas Summer League features 13 of the top 14 picks from this year's NBA Draft, along with many more already established players from 23 teams around the league.

And Lillard has more than held his own, shooting a decent 44 percent from the field and a highly respectable 38 percent from 3-point range entering Saturday's game against the Miami Heat, which he sat out.

Lillard made five 3-pointers in one summer league game and, after committing seven turnovers in that same contest, came back with seven assists in each of his next two games and just five turnovers combined as the Blazers won both of those matchups.

"Every time I talk about this kid, it just keeps (getting better)," rookie center Meyers Leonard told Joe Freeman of The Oregonian newspaper. "He's unbelievable. His ability to finish around the rim, shoot, create for others, defend, play hard — he's a special player."

Sounds awfully good, huh? But how 'bout the perspective from somebody who's been in the league for awhile.

"He's good ... very talented player," Portland's All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge told the media in Las Vegas. "He can really play. He definitely makes good passes, makes good reads. That's going to be big for us.

"I think every guy has ups and downs, but I think he's going to be good. He has a really good pace to his game and he's smart."

One of Lillard's best qualities is that, despite his terrific basketball ability, he has a level head on his shoulders. He's not one to brag or talk smack, but he believes in himself and in what he can do on the court.

"I think that's why Damian has been so successful coming from a smaller program, being able to do the things he does," Hersey Hawkins, the Blazers' player development director, told Freeman.

"He has good focus and he understands his place, but he also believes in his ability and the fact that no matter what point guard is in this league, he can compete with him. And that's an inner confidence that you can't teach. I just hope he keeps that edge."

To his credit, Lillard is well aware there's a big-time learning curve ahead of him.

"Not to say there aren't real players here," he told The Oregonian. "But I know it's a whole 'nother level up in the NBA, with NBA players, not summer league players. Being the MVP of this, I would be happy with it, but it's not my main concern."

The Blazers already have a couple of other Utah connections on their roster.

They took shooting guard Wesley Matthews away from the Jazz with a lucrative contract offer a couple of years ago. And a few days ago, they signed 6-2 point guard Ronnie Price, a former Utah Valley University star who spent four seasons in a Jazz uniform.

Price, a seven-year NBA veteran, is being counted on to help mentor Lillard and second-year Portland point guard Nolan Smith.

Price and Lillard have worked out together for years while Lillard was playing at Weber State and Price was with the Jazz, so that should help ease Lillard's transition to the next level as well.

Still, Lillard — the guy who Carl Arky, voice of the Wildcats, admiringly called "The Great Dame" — is penciled in as the Trail Blazers' starter at the critical point guard position. Those are pretty darned big shoes for any rookie to fill.

But several years from now, don't be surprised if Lillard's still lighting things up in that "other" league. You know, the one called the National Basketball Association.

email: rhollis@desnews.com

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