You've just got to keep believing. Last year, we had a lot of new players on the team. We were a really young team, and we were trying to put it together. We won 33 games, but it takes time. Even the best teams, they had their time when they struggled. —Portland guard Damian Lillard
SALT LAKE CITY — Sure, Damian Lillard is only 23 years old and is winding up just his second season in the National Basketball Association.
But the Portland Trail Blazers' All-Star point guard is wise beyond his years and level of NBA experience, and he has some sage advice for the Utah Jazz and their fans who have suffered through an awfully tough season:
Just keep believing. Yes, just keep believing in your team and, eventually, they'll turn it around.
"You've just got to keep believing," Lillard said Friday morning at EnergySolutions Arena, where the playoff-bound Trail Blazers were preparing for their fourth and final matchup with the Jazz this season. "Last year, we had a lot of new players on the team. We were a really young team, and we were trying to put it together. We won 33 games, but it takes time.
"Even the best teams, they had their time when they struggled. Oklahoma City, with KD (Kevin Durant) and Russ (Russell Westbrook), their first year together, I think they had the worst record in the league. And now they're like contenders every year. So it just took time for them to grow. And once they had that time to grow, now they are who they are.
"And I think that goes for everybody — you need that time to grow, and you need that time to build chemistry and experience," he said.
That philosophy, Lillard said, certainly applies to the Jazz, whose starting lineup features 21-year-old point guard Trey Burke, shooting guard Gordon Hayward, who just turned 24 a couple of weeks ago, and 22-year-old center Derrick Favors, along with top reserves Enes Kanter and Alec Burks, who are 21 and 22, respectively.
"Trey's a rookie, Gordon's really young, Favs is really young," Lillard said of Utah's young 20-something starters. "They've got a really young team and, I think, add some pieces and things could change as soon as next year.
"The biggest thing is just keep believing. Confidence is a huge part of this league. They keep believing, there's no telling what you can do.
"Our team believed and now we're 23 games above .500 and in the playoffs," he said, "so having that confidence in your team is a huge thing. ... Everybody went home this past summer and came back better. And we all bought into what the team needed us to do individually. We brought in some vets and it's really paid off for our team. We've had a great season and we're just trying to finish it the right way and just try to make a push in the playoffs."
Lillard, in just his second NBA season after a stellar collegiate career at Weber State, has been impressed with what he's seen out of Burke thus far this season.
"The biggest thing with him is I think he improves every time," said Lillard, who has gone up against Burke three times this season but teamed up with him to win the skills challenge during the NBA's All-Star weekend in February. "Every time I see him play, he's getting better.
"And to be a rookie point guard, I know I made mistakes and I was allowed to play though 'em and so is he. But to be a rookie, he doesn't make a lot of mistakes. I think he has one turnover to every three assists, and you know that's big time, especially on a team that's not in the playoffs.
"He's in his first year of running the team," said Lillard, who's averaging 21 points and 5.6 assists per game. "I remember being out there and not being so sure of everything that was going on, being a point guard and being in control of the team. So he's had a really good season and I think he's a really good point guard."
In their first three head-to-head matchups this season, Lillard averaged 22.3 points and 5.3 assists compared to 14.3 points and 4.3 assists for Burke. But their last two matchups before Friday night's game had been much more of a statistical standoff.
Burke, who has averaged 12.4 points and 5.5 assists in his rookie season, had plenty of complimentary things to say about Lillard as well.
"It's definitely always a competitive matchup when I go up against a guy who's a younger guard in this league. I definitely measure myself up to guys like him," Burke said. "He's a couple of years older than me, but I definitely feel like he's a guy that we kind of have similar games. He's strong as well, a strong point guard.Comment on this story
"He's a really good shooter, runs his team really well and can get in the paint as well, so he pretty much has the whole package as a player.
"We have a pretty cool relationship," Burke said. "I didn't really know him before that (teaming up in the skills challenge), but we got an opportunity to build a relationship during All-Star week, talk a lot off the court instead of just competing so much on the court."
And despite all the losses and frustration the Jazz have had to endure this season, Lillard would be the first guy to give Burke some much-needed encouragement and tell him:
Just keep believing.