Lillard Learns The Art Of Managing Egos In Las Vegas
After three days of practice in Las Vegas, Damian Lillard wrapped up his first foray into Team USA basketball with a nine-point, three-assist performance in the USA Basketball Showcase held Thursday night at the Thomas & Mack Center on the campus of UNLV. Lillard started at point guard for the Blue team, which lost to Kyrie Irving and the White team 128-106.
Lillard will now have to wait to see if his performance during practices and the scrimmage will be enough to earn one of the few available roster spots on Team USA come the 2014 World Championships.
But whether or not Lillard makes the team, his stint at the Team USA mini-camp will go down as an important step in his maturation as a point guard. According to Lillard, just four days in the USA Basketball system has accelerated his maturation as a NBA point guard, though you might not necessarily be able to see the difference on the court come the start of the 2013-14 season.
"All these guys want to be all-stars soon, so of course there's a lot of egos in the room," said Lillard of the players at the Team USA mini-camp. "It's not like my (Blazers) teammates, where guys know their roles and some guys are happy with being 'this player' on the team. All these guys want to be the best, so I think it will help me learning to manage these egos as a point guard and lead a bunch of guys who want to be 'the guy.' I can take that back to my team and it won't be as hard to lead. If I can lead here, I'll be a better leader for the Trail Blazers. I think that's the biggest thing that I can take from here."
One thing Lillard has going for him, in both the Team USA and Trail Blazers locker rooms, is the credibility that comes with winning Rookie of the Year in decisive fashion. Game recognize game, and anyone who watched Lillard during his rookie season knows he's got the skills to dominate on the court and the confidence to accept a challenge. And when players see a teammate who gets results, they're far more likely to fall in line when necessary.
"I think if I didn't have anything to back me up guys would be like 'What have you done?' They'd probably look at me like, who are you to say something to me?," said Lillard. "Because guys might be good guys but that doesn't mean that they won't look at you and say 'What makes you feel like you can say something to me?' I think the fact that I've done something in my one year, guys will allow me to speak up and say things to them."
Lillard showed during his rookie season that his skills on the court were NBA-ready, but knowing how to manage a locker room of professionals is a trait that, by definition, you have to learn through experience. It's a skill knowing how to keep your teammates happy, a skill that point guards must possess if they're to truly be successful in the NBA. So having the opportunity to work on perfecting that balancing act in a setting like the Team USA mini-camp has proven invaluable for Lillard.
"Great player on one side, great player on the other, encourage them both," explained Lillard about the issues that arise when dealing with top-level players. "I think in situations like this, the best thing is to keep their heads in the game. That doesn't necessarily mean you've got to feed them the ball, that just means keep their headed in the game. It might mean telling a guy 'I see you down there. Keep running! Keep running the floor! Keep boxing out! Good rebound!' Just small stuff to let guys know that they're doing something good so they stay locked into the game. That's all you can do. Some guys might react to it different but the best thing you can do is try to make sure you keep everybody on your side and in the game."
The skills he's picking up when it comes to running a team aren't just being absorbed by accident. Throughout the mini-camp, Lillard has been tutored by Team USA assistant and Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, who obviously has experience helping young point guards grow into floor generals on veteran-laden teams.
"I think I probably talked to (Thibodeau) more than anybody else," said Lillard. "He's constantly telling me 'Dame, see, that wouldn't have happened right there if you were leading. That's why you've got to lead the team. You've got to run your team.' He's really helped me realize certain situations where I can prevent a jam or my team having a brain fart at some point in a scrimmage. Or, when we're going over plays, knowing when to speak up or direct traffic a bit more. He's definitely opened my eyes to some things that can make me a better leader."
"For all these guys, when you play (point guard), I think it's a leadership position," said Thibodeau. "Everyone is coming together here for the first time, so it's about how everybody functions together. So we want all of our point guards to set the tone and lead and be vocal."
Which is what Lillard has tried to do during the Team USA mini-camp in an effort to improve his chances of one day making the national team while also, as he puts it, having something of value to bring back to the Trail Blazers for his sophomore season. It's not necessarily a new mindset for Lillard, but one that has definitely been refined during meetings and training sessions with Team USA.
"When we go over the sets and what the coaches want, I'm locked in to everything they say," said Lillard. "Everybody wants to do everything right when you come here. You're trying to make a team. I'm locked in for those reasons so I can make sure I'm on top of everything I need to be on top of.
"Some guys might not pick everything up as fast, some guys might not be paying attention at times. So I want to be able to not only keep myself in check and know where I'm supposed to be and what I'm doing but I want to be able to help the next guy if he needs help. That's my job as a point guard and that's going to be a part of my growth."
Both as a prospective member of Team USA and as a Portland Trail Blazer.