Damian Lillard Reflects On His Summer League Poster As He Prepares For New Challenge In Las Vegas
On July 19, 2012 at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas, Damian Lillard introduced himself to the NBA.
It's not that people didn't know who he was before that date. After all, he was the focus of a popular Youtube video series, License To Lillard
, during the run up to the 2012 Draft. He had walked across the stage and shook NBA commissioner David Stern's hand on national television after being selected by the Trail Blazers with the sixth overall pick.
And in the games preceding the July 19, 2012 contest against the Atlanta Hawks' summer league squad, Lillard performed well incredibly well, scoring 25 and 27
in games against the Hornets and Rockets, respectively. He even hit a setback three-pointer
, a shot he would become known for during the course of his 2012-13 Rookie of the Year season, to ice a win against New Orleans' summer league team.
But while there was some familiarity with who Lillard was, people didn't really know what he was really capable of on the court until the third quarter of that game against Atlanta just over a year ago.
"It was a pretty competitive game, a game where some emotions started to get into it," recalled Lillard. "I was scoring the ball -- I think that was the most points I scored in summer league in that game."
Which is correct. Lillard scored his summer league-high of 31 points
in that game against the Hawks on 11-of-22 shooting, but none of his makes were more emphatic than his field goal at the 6:31 mark in the third quarter.
"It was a loose ball and (Hawks summer league guard Jordan Taylor) tried to beat me to it, but I beat him to the ball," said Lillard, describing the play with remarkable accuracy despite being 12 months removed from the day of that game. "He ended up on my back. And then (Hawks summer league forward) Mike Scott was just above the free-throw line, kind of stunting at me."
With the shot clock down to 13 and the defense collapsing, Lillard had a few options. Scott, seeing that Taylor was beat off the dribble, tried to keep Lillard out of the lane by "stunting", which left Luke Babbitt open at the three-point line. But getting the ball to him would have required Lillard throwing a pass across his body at a difficult angle. Lillard also had John Diebler setting up for a corner three, but Atlanta's John Jenkins did a nice job of staying in the passing lane while rotating to the paint.
So rather than force a difficult pass, Lillard did something that, up until that point, most people outside of Weber State had ever seen him do, at least in live action.
"I hesitated just a little bit, took one last dribble, picked it up between the line and the restricted area on one leg," said Lillard. I saw a crack and (Hawks center Keith Benson) tried to block the attempt. I felt like I had jumped high enough to dunk it. He tried to meet me a the rim and I met him there. And he didn't block the shot."
No he did not. Instead, Benson ended up getting dunked on with extreme prejudice while trying to contest Lillard's shot at the rim.
"People were probably saying 'I didn't know he was that athletic, didn't know he was capable of that,'" said Lillard. "I think a lot of people were more surprised than anything else."
While it was undoubtedly the right defensive play, one wonders if Benson, knowing what he and the rest of the basketball-watching public now know about Lillard, would try the same thing again. And in Benson's defense, even Lillard's own teammates didn't realize at that time that he had the combination of strength and vertical leap to finish so emphatically above the rim.
"I had seen it a little bit, but nothing like that," said Meyers Leonard of Lillard's under-the-surface athleticism. "I was really surprised. Normally guards go in, give you a little head fake, shoot a floater, shoot a little flip shot. But when he took off, I was like 'Oh man, where is this going?' And then he just hammered it… It was just disgusting, and I was standing right there."
And along with the athleticism, which, up until that point, was not all that associated with Lillard's game, there was a display of raw emotion from Lillard that would belie an otherwise calm demeanor that he became synonymous for his rookie season.
"Up to that point I hadn't really shown much emotion at all," said Lillard. "Once I dunked it over him I yelled at him, said a few things. That was probably a turning point."
The two points he scored on that dunk counted no more or no less than any of his other two-point field goals. But in retrospect, after all the accolades and awards earned by Lillard during his rookie season, that dunk as a declaration of future intent takes on an added significance, a line draw in the desert sands of Las Vegas. Ignored coming out of high school and doubted coming out of Weber State, Lillard would no longer be satisfied with being a best-kept secret.
"It was a cool experience," said Lillard of his 2012 Las Vegas Summer League performance. "I was excited about having the opportunity to prove myself and really perform. And I had a lot of fun. I was able to show people I was worthy of that pick, that I was going to be a finisher."
Lillard will confront a new challenge in Las Vegas as he prepares to participate in the 2013 USA Basketball Men's National Team Mini-Camp. It was almost exactly a year ago that Lillard proved he deserved to represent the Portland Trail Blazers. Now he's out to prove he's worthy of same honor with the United States.