At times the outside pressure was overwhelming. I wouldn't blame it on that, but it can take a toll. A little bit, just for a second, it kind of wore on me a little bit … but this week I really just got my mind back to the game. —Damian Lillard
OGDEN — The arena is half full, but it's no big concern to Weber State's Damian Lillard. In the driveway or in the gym, packed house or empty, his personal volume is on high. It's not his talk, or even his walk that sets him apart, but his game.
A fearless drive, a running banker, a pull-up jumper, an easy three. A 40-point night in a win over Portland State on Thursday to end his mini-slump.
He is leading the nation in scoring (25.1), and has been since early this season. Last year's national scoring champ was BYU's Jimmer Fredette, the subject of numerous YouTube tributes and even a rap song. While Fredette played to a roaring crowd of 23,000, Lillard's canvas is much smaller — about 6,000 a night, often fewer when he's on the road.
"I'm more of an under-the-radar guy," Lillard says. "Jimmermania is just not me."
OK, how about Damianation?
"Whatever you want," he says bashfully.
Lillard is that beautiful blend of confidence and humility that great players often possess. Like Fredette, he doesn't overdo the self promotion. While Fredette had longer range and more crowd-pleasing shots, Lillard is more efficient, leading the Wildcats in assists and steals and is second in rebounding. He made 13 of his first 15 field goal attempts on Thursday, including all six 3-point tries and all four free throws.
As they say in the coaching clinics, he lets the game come to him.
Weber is 17-4 with a 12-game home winning streak, which means the Big Sky regular season championship is within grasp. A loss last week at Idaho State slowed the Wildcats, but they righted themselves this week.
At this time last year, Lillard was out with a foot injury. It was no casual comeback. He returned dramatically different, 10 pounds stronger, with a bigger repertoire of skills and a tougher mindset.
If Lillard longs for his own brand of Jimmermania, he hasn't said so. He politely avoids comparisons, directing most inquiries back to his team. But as the season advances, his profile rises. Every game, the questions are similar: How does it feel to lead the country? Did he expect it? Will he declare for the NBA after the season? He has handled it with aplomb.
Yet three weeks ago, his stats began to slip. He scored in the teens three of five games, including a 5-for-14 night.
"At times the outside pressure was overwhelming," he says. "I wouldn't blame it on that, but it can take a toll. A little bit, just for a second, it kind of wore on me a little bit … but this week I really just got my mind back to the game."
Though a more complete player than Fredette, he hasn't had nearly the fanfare. Lillard has worked quietly to small crowds and sporadic media coverage. But it would be hard to figure the attention hasn't affected his game as the season rolls along. It is the second round of Big Sky play, and teams are running two or three players at him. Meanwhile, the pro scouts are as thick as chowder. During Thursday's game there were nine NBA reps in the house.
There has been some publicity, including that in USA Today, ESPN and other national outlets, and is increasing as March Madeness approaches.
"It's getting really crazy now," he says. "It's overwhelming at times."
He is asked whether having scouts at all his games has affected him.
"Maybe at first there was some pressure. I was going, 'Oh, wow, scouts are in Ogden.' But I'm used to it," he says. "I just focus on my team and winning games. They come to see me do what I've been doing, so there's no real pressure to do anything different."
He chats in the stands with a handful of kids who have come down to get his autograph. But there is no ESPN waiting, no blaring band. As much as he is the focus of things, he's also, as he says, under the radar. He isn't worried. His shot back on track. Just a fine college player at the top of his game, going quietly into the night.