He's always been one of those kids that, the minute you tell him he can't do something, he's gonna go do it. —Randy Rahe
OGDEN — A little over a year ago, when he announced he would forgo his final year of collegiate eligibility at Weber State to enter the NBA draft, Damian Lillard boldly announced that one of his goals would be to win the league's Rookie of the Year award.
On Wednesday, to the surprise of virtually no one who watched him put together a spectacular first season in the association, Lillard made that glorious dream a reality.
The 6-foot-3 point guard, who was the sixth pick in the 2012 draft and started all 82 games for the Portland Trail Blazers this past season, was unanimously named the 2012-13 NBA Rookie of the Year — the first Utah collegiate player to ever be so honored.
And no wonder. After all, Lillard led all of the league's first-year players in points (19.0) and assists (6.5) per game. What's more, he led the entire NBA in minutes played, averaging 38.6 per game, making him just the third rookie in league history to ever do so. The other two were a couple of guys you might've heard of: Hall of Famers Wilt Chamberlain and Elvin Hayes.
Lillard becomes only the fourth rookie in NBA history to win the award by a unanimous vote — joining Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers (2011), David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs (1990) and Ralph Sampson of the Houston Rockets (1984).
Indeed, the young man from Weber State made good on that bold goal he set for himself on the day he declared for the NBA draft.
"This is the way I hoped it would (turn out)," Lillard said Wednesday in an ESPN interview. "When I first got drafted, I knew that I was up against it. There was a lot of doubt and a lot of criticism and I just wanted to come out and be productive.
"I wanted to help the team exceed people's expectations, and I knew that it would take a lot for me as a point guard for that to happen. So I'm not going to say that I expected this to happen, but I was hoping it would.
"I was serious," he said of his draft-declaration-day statement. "... When I said it, I really believed it, and I thought that I did everything to put myself in position to make it happen. And it's great that it actually happened."
In a voting process that rewards five points for a first-place vote, three points for second place and one point for third, Lillard received a maximum total of 605 points in voting by 121 sportswriters and broadcasters, easily outdistancing the New Orleans Hornets’ Anthony Davis (305) and the Washington Wizards’ Bradley Beal (94).
Lillard joined former NBA superstars Oscar Robertson and Allen Iverson as the only rookies in NBA history to score 1,500 points and pile up 500 assists in their first seasons. He was named Western Conference Rookie of the Month in every month of the entire regular season, only the eighth player in league history to sweep the monthly award.
Lillard also set a rookie record for 3-pointers in a season with 185, which ranked fifth in the league overall. He wound up 12th in the league in scoring and 16th in assists, averaging 3.1 rebounds per game while shooting 42.9 percent from the field and 84.4 percent from the foul line.
Still, his college coach, Randy Rahe, admitted that he was a little surprised at how quickly Lillard established himself as one of the league's premier point guards.
So, did he really expect his protege to be the NBA Rookie of the Year?
"Honestly? No," Rahe said. "I wish I could say I did. I was skeptical, but again, that's Damian. It's a testament to him. He's always been one of those kids that, the minute you tell him he can't do something, he's gonna go do it.
"He's played with a chip on his shoulder ever since high school. He played with a chip on his shoulder here, and I know he played with a chip on his shoulder his first year in Portland.
"The kid is truly amazing, and I've never seen a kid work so hard for something in my entire life," the Wildcats' coach added, bursting his buttons with pride. "I knew he could play. I knew he could be successful. But I think it goes back to he went to the right place. Portland was willing to give him the ball and kind of give him the reins of the team, and I think that's one of the reasons why he came along as quickly as he did."
Coach Rahe pointed to the maturity and confidence Lillard gained from playing four years of college ball as keys to helping him make the transition to the NBA.
Lillard, meanwhile, credited the Wildcats' program, Weber State's fans and support system, and the Ogden community for helping prepare him for what was to come.
He was mighty grateful to win the award for a mid-major program that's considered one of "the little guys."
"It means a lot, just because of the position I came from, the small school," he said. "I'm glad that I could do it for people that have been in that situation, the ones that are and the ones that will be, because I think it's underappreciated when you're not at a major college sometimes and you don't play against the greatest competition and you're not always on TV. There was a lot of criticism because of that.
"So I think it means that much more because I come from that situation, and now I'm able to be the Rookie of the Year at the highest level of basketball. So, I mean, it's an honor."
He said he learned a lot at Weber State — about more than just how to hone his basketball skills — and said the key now is to stay hungry, "keep making strides," and never become satisfied with what he's already accomplished.
"I think the type of program that it was, it was all about hard work and competing and never backing down," Lillard said. "And that's the type of attitude that I took into the draft process, into summer league, because I knew I had a lot to prove and I was really out to prove people wrong and to show the people that doubted me.
"I was really anxious to get out on the floor and show people I belonged here. And throughout the season, I kept saying I want to prove that I belong. And I proved it.
"One of the biggest things I learned when I was in Ogden was just appreciate the people around you," he said. "The way the city embraced me when I was in college, when I was shopping at the mall, the kind of respect people showed me, the type of support they showed in games, how they made me feel on campus, that was important to me. I think people really appreciate it when you value the people around you.
"People in Ogden valued me, and I value those people — I still do to this day. There's a lot of lessons I learned over those four years that I still have with me. I still carry a lot of that stuff with me, and that's a big part of why I'm able to do what I'm doing today."
Rahe said tremendous work ethic, motivation and focus have played a big part in Lillard's success, and will continue to do so.
"Next he's going to want to be an All-Star, and I'm never going to doubt him," the WSU coach said. "So it's gonna happen; now when it happens I'm not sure, but it's gonna happen. ... For him to go to that level that quickly was just an incredible accomplishment. Now he'll get to that next level, and I know it's gonna happen for him.
"But I'm as proud of the kind of person that he is as I am the kind of player that he is."
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