Team USA: Damian Lillard's Day 1 Reactions
LAS VEGAS – “Trying on the actual USA uniform at my hotel last night was when it hit me that I made it. I had to take a picture of that moment. I was like, 'This is Team USA.'”
Those quotes from Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard after the National Team's first practice said it all in regards to how proud he is to be in a position to represent his country.
The lightly-recruited high school prospect turned 2013 NBA Rookie of the Year, continues to rack of the accomplishments and accolades in an unusual path. He is one of 28 players competing in a four-day mini camp that concludes with a intrasquad scrimmage on Thursday with the goal of landing a roster spot for the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain.
From Weber State, to Rookie of the Year, to possibly being able to play alongside the likes of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant is not the path anyone would have thought he was going down when he decided to attend a school in Ogden, UT.
Then there's Coach K, a coach he admires and has seen roam the Duke sidelines for years. During his time at Weber State, he watched Duke play a lot. Mainly because he felt he was better than some of those guys over there.
“I wasn't going to get recruited at that level, but I felt like I should have,” Lillard said. “That's just how I felt, but it's an honor to play for him after all he's done.”
When growing up and having aspirations of one day playing in the NBA, the common steps most think of to achieve such a feat is dominating the AAU circuit, followed by becoming a McDonald's All-American, then signing with Duke or North Carolina or Kentucky, and then onto to being in the NBA lottery.
We're well aware that wasn't the case with Lillard.
He admits he still has a chip on his shoulder about being overlooked by bigger schools. But his biggest issue was people not giving him his respect once he felt he had established himself as one of the best collegiate players in the nation.
So even after all you've accomplished, you're still bitter?
“Definitely, man. It still bothers me,” Lillard told CSNNW.com. “It's not even about not being recruited out of high school, it's about my progress. Every time I did something good, everybody was saying it was because he's at a small school. I want people to see that this is me, man. I better myself each and every year and I can compete with the best.
“I belong here.”
There's no doubt about that.
USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo spoke briefly to CSNNW.com about Lillard's chances with the team and he believes the 23-year old has a bright future.
“First of all, he's a terrific player,” Colangelo told CSNNW.com. “He had an outstanding rookie season. He belongs here and deserves a lot of consideration because I think he's going to get better and better.”
Members of the media were only allowed to watch the last 30 minutes of practice today. In that time-span, Lillard knocked down two threes, took a charge and ran the two-guard position primarily.
One area of Lillard's game that has drawn criticism has been his defense. When I asked him about that charge he took on Gordon Hayward during the scrimmage, he responded the right way.
“Those type of things win gold medals,” he said. “We watched a short tape and a lot of guys that you see that are superstars that you probably won't see taking a charge, they were willing to do it so why not do it myself.”
Lillard will not only be doing the dirty work. His sweet shooting stroke will allow him to play off the ball with other accomplished ball dominating stars. That's what makes Lillard the perfect prospect for international play: his shooting ability.
Kyrie Irving, Jrue Holiday, John Wall, Mike Conley, Ty Lawson and Kemba Walker are his competition. Irving and Lillard are the best shooters out of that bunch with both having the ability to play multiple positions. That's exactly what Coach K is looking for.
“It's about finding versatile players that can play multiple position and that's an advantage we have,” Krzyzewski said. “Just like a point guard, you don't need a true point guard if you’re playing with LeBron, Kobe, Durant because these guys need the ball. Everybody kind of adapts to play a game that's conducive to our style and it doesn't have to necessarily have to be a one through five (position).”
Coach K refused to comment on players individually. But his quotes favor Lillard's game.
It's still a long process from here. There's a ton of players to consider. Most would be happy to just be here. Of course, not Lillard. He wants to be here because it's his time. The great players have all worn the USA jersey. And now it's Lillard's opportunity to make sure he wears it on multiple occasions.
“It's where you want to be when you want to be one of the better players in the league,” Lillard said. “But my career with the Trail Blazers, getting into the playoffs, winning championships, stuff like that is what will validate things. But it's nothing like putting on a uniform and representing your country.”