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WSU's Damian Lillard hasn't forgotten where he came from

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 2 2015 9:09 a.m. MDT

OGDEN — Damian Lillard has moved on to the bright lights and big cities of the NBA.

No more trips to Pocatello, Greeley, Bozeman, Missoula, Flagstaff or all those other delightful places he got to visit regularly in the Big Sky Conference.

But Wednesday night, the former Weber State basketball star came back to Ogden, a place he called "home" for the last four years, to sneak a peak at how his old team was looking — one night before his new team, the Portland Trail Blazers, tangles with the Utah Jazz in a preseason game at Salt Lake City.

"I wanted to come back and see how the team was looking," Lillard told reporters prior to the Wildcats' annual Purple and White Game at the Dee Events Center. "I'm happy it worked out like this so I could come back the day before and then we play tomorrow, so I'm excited to see how the team looks. I'm just happy to be back."

Lillard said he still talks to his "old" teammates all the time — "They text me just like they did when I was here," he said — but life has obviously changed dramatically for the two-time Big Sky Player of the Year since he was selected by the Blazers with the sixth pick in the NBA Draft last June.

He has since been named co-MVP of the 2012 NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, and the 6-foot-3 guard — to the surprise of nobody — has taken over the reins of the Blazers' team as its starting point guard for the upcoming season.

That's a lot for this 22-year-old young man from Oakland, Calif., to take in. But in his typical low-key manner, Lillard seems completely cool, calm and collected about how much his life has changed over the last four months.

"It's everything I thought it would be and more," he said. "My first (preseason) game was against (two-time NBA MVP) Steve Nash, and he walked up and they actually knew who I was. They said 'What's up, Dame?'

"It was crazy just to be on the floor with those guys and they knew who I was. They knew my tendencies. Just to know that those people you've been watching for so long know who you are is great.

"Every game, it happens all over again," Lillard said. "I get out there and I look at the other end (of the floor) and I see those guys, and I'm like 'I watched them on TV for the last four or five years.' It's just crazy and every game it happens all over again. I look down there and I realize I'm blessed to be here.

"But then they throw the ball up, and I realize they're trying to beat me and I'm trying to beat them, so I have no choice but to compete and forget about the fact that I've been watching them play. ... It's been everything that I expected and it's been fun, so I'm just looking forward to playing more games."

Lillard, who missed most of one season after breaking his foot, left Weber State a year early following his junior season — but not before becoming the school's second-leading scorer of all time and climbing all the way up to No. 5 in the history of the Big Sky.

He wound up being the No. 2 scorer in the nation last season, when he averaged 24.5 points per game and earned his third All-Big Sky First-Team selection.

Now, he's taking his talents to the best basketball league in the world. And it appears he's having no trouble proving that he belongs there.

His biggest adjustment?

"There's just a lot of space on the floor," he said. "I thought that just because guys are so much bigger and everybody's more athletic that it would probably be more clogged up, but there's actually a lot of space on the floor and I'm able to do a lot more with a lot of space. I wouldn't say it's easier, but it's easier to find my spots on the floor.

"In college, there's a smaller floor and in the NBA I've just been able to find spots easier.

"I've been making the adjustment of being more vocal, too, being able to tell guys that have already been in the league before me what to do, where they need to be, and just getting used to playing against that level of players," Lillard said. "Any time you're a rookie coming in, you're not used to playing against the best players in the world, so that's a big adjustment."

Lillard has been mentioned as a strong Rookie of the Year candidate, an honor that he would take in stride.

"That's definitely a lot to live up to but, being myself, I just try to stay focused on what I've been doing — working hard — and trying to help the team win games," he said. "As long as I keep doing that and being successful doing that, I probably have a chance."

Lillard was also asked about inevitable comparisons that people make between him and another highly touted Utah collegiate star, BYU's Jimmer Fredette, who was also a lottery pick in 2011 but struggled mightily in his first season with the Sacramento Kings.

"I really don't pay attention to that," Lillard said. "Jimmer is a friend of mine. I've known him since I was at Weber State, and I think he'll be fine in Sacramento. I really don't pay attention to people comparing us based on what we did in college.

"I didn't really get a chance to watch him (last season), because I was more concerned with my season here. But if anything, I just try to keep my confidence up because I know there's going to be bumps in the road. I might have a rough patch this season and next season and probably the year after that, too. But I just need to keep my confidence up so I can stay effective."

Yes, Mr. Lillard — the man WSU play-by-play announcer Carl Arky liked to call "The Great Dame" — has definitely arrived.

And although he realizes his life will be forever changed from here on out, he loves what he's doing and the path his life has taken.

"A lot of people go to college and then when you're done with school you've got to job-hunt," he said. "You've got to figure out what you're gonna do next.

"But for me, I did my four years here and now I'm an NBA player, so I don't have to worry about homework and having a job interview and doing all types of work, because I'm doing what I love to do. So just having to worry about basketball every day and then just going home, that's the best part about it."

Well said, young man. And welcome home.

EMAIL: rhollis@desnews.com

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