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Randy Hollis: Former WSU basketball star Damian Lillard has made Wildcat Nation mighty proud

Published: Monday, July 6 2015 5:38 a.m. MDT

Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers watches Utah shoot foul shots during NBA basketball in Salt Lake City, Friday, Feb. 1, 2013.  (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers watches Utah shoot foul shots during NBA basketball in Salt Lake City, Friday, Feb. 1, 2013. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

Purple Pride was overflowing Friday night at EnergySolutions Arena.

And for good reason.

Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard, less than a year removed from his days as a Weber State star, was in town to go up against the Utah Jazz. And a large contingent of Wildcat fans, along with what sounded like several hundred more Lillard fans, got to see him put on a pretty good show.

Lillard had a game-high 26 points in Portland's 86-77 loss, as he scored in a variety of ways — 3-pointers, dazzling drives to the basket, including a couple of highlight-reel dunks, and a couple of mid-range jump shots, too. He poured in 20 second-half points, 14 of those coming in the third quarter when he put on without question the most impressive performance on the court.

Indeed, more than midway through the 2012-13 NBA season, Lillard is well on his way to winning the Rookie of the Year award.

But as great a basketball player as Damian Lillard has turned out to be, he's an even better person — a rising star who seems unaffected by his celebrity, a confident athlete who has somehow still managed to maintain his humility.

It's so refreshing to see someone who has stepped into the spotlight and yet remains essentially the same guy who he was back before nobody had heard of him.

"I remember before all this happened," he said of his emerging stardom. "I remember when everybody didn't believe and everybody said it was the league I played in and how I didn't play against NBA-level competition. I didn't believe all the hype and what everybody was saying back then, so now that the tables have turned, I'm not going to start buying into it now."

But he admits that he used the naysayers' doubts he'd ever make it in the NBA as motivation to show those folks that he did, indeed, belonged and had the right stuff to succeed.

"Yeah, I did," Lillard said. "I think anyhody who's been doubted a lot, people always have a knock for you, and you always want to prove 'em wrong. And that was my big thing coming into this year.

"I know some people are probably waiting for me to fail at something because it's been a smooth transition. So I know people are waiting to say, 'He hit the rookie wall,' or 'He was just playing out of his mind.' So I'm just trying to be consistent and prove to people that I belong here and the level that I'm playing at is the level that I'm going to play at. So I think it's just constantly working and keep on proving people wrong."

Weber State has a rich basketball tradition going back more than 50 years. Former Wildcat coach Dick Motta went on to win an NBA championship and is one of the league's all-time winningest coaches; another former Weber coach, Phil Johnson, was an NBA Coach of the Year and served so many seasons as Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan's wise, loyal sidekick; the Wildcats have won a bundle of conference championships, earned plenty of NCAA Tournament trips and own a couple of giant-killing victories over Michigan State and North Carolina, and a handful of former Weber State players like Eddie Gill have had their moments in the big boys' league.

But no player who ever donned Wildcat purple has had the kind of impact, immediate or otherwise, that Lillard is having in Portland. He's already swept three straight Western Conference Rookie of the Month awards, is averaging over 18 points and nearly 7 assists per game, and has helped the Trail Blazers remain relevant in the playoff chase.

And while he's emerged as the favorite to win the league's Rookie of the Year award, he says that's far from his main goal this season.

"It would mean a lot, but that's not my primary focus," Lillard said Friday. "I'm really just trying to help the team win games and hopefully get a playoff berth. I think that's what everybody on the team would say. As long as we win games, that means I'm playing well, and I think that'll lead to individual awards.

"It's hard to ignore; I don't think I can ignore it. I'm flattered by it, just because last year, I probably would be lying if I said I saw it as coming, but it's just a great thing and it's something that I plan on living up to. I think it's too early to tag me as that because somebody else could pass me up maybe. I just plan on doing what I've been doing for the rest of the year.

"It's been great," he said of his NBA experience up to this point, "but I know that it's a long season. I don't want to have a one-year career. It's about progress, constant improvement, so I've just been trying to stay in the moment, not look too far ahead and not try and drown myself in what's been happening. I just want to keep getting better."

Lillard, 22, credited his stay at Weber State for being a major factor in developing the player, and the person, that he's become.

"I think the four years says it all," he said of his collegiate career at the Ogden school. "I was there four years. My coaches, they developed me each year. It was never like I showed up at Weber State as an NBA player. Each summer, they sat down with me and thought out things that I needed to improve upon over the summer, and I think every year I improved as a person and player.

"Every year I felt like they expected more from me, not only on the floor but in the classroom, how people saw me around campus, so they really helped me in the development of my character and my ability to play the game.

"It's a completely different ballgame," he said of the move up from college ball to the NBA. "All of a sudden you've got a thousand more family members, everybody needs a favor and you've got a lot of money. So it can be a lot of negative attention, but it is what you make it.

"I keep the same circle of people around me and try to remain as humble as I can and just enjoy it for what it is — the game of basketball."

Lillard also realizes that a big part of his progress as an NBA player has come about because he was given the opportunity to come in and play regular minutes — an opportunity which has thus far eluded former BYU superstar Jimmer Fredette, who's been faced with a frustrating situation in Sacramento.

In Lillard's case, though, that opportunity to play has greatly eased his transition to the NBA.

"I don't think I could've been in a better position," Lillard said. "Portland had a need for my position. I think they were looking for the style of point guard that I am, and I think the kind of guys on our team I really fit well with, so I don't think I could've been in a better situation.

"I don't think it's been easy; my situation made it easier because of how my teammates accepted me. My situation with me having freedom and me being around great guys, that makes everything a lot easier.

"The Jimmer situation, he's on a team with a lot of guards and everything hasn't gone perfect for Jimmer," Lillard said. "But I think with the kind of guy that Jimmer is, I think everything will turn around for him and I think he'll find his way. I think the situation you end up being in is a big part of how well you transition."

OK, I admit it, I'm a Weber State guy, one who watched Lillard play and progress during his days as a Wildcat. So I've got a lot of Purple Pride these days.

And yes, I'm mighty proud of the player he's become — and perhaps even more proud of the person that he is.

EMAIL: rhollis@desnews.com

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