Damian Lillard---As coaches, no one in basketball has coached against Portland Trail Blazer star rookie guard Damian Lillard more than Montana head coach Wayne Tinkle. Right behind Tinkle in that coaching numbers is Portland State head coach Tyler Geving. And as a player, no one presently playing basketball has played more games against Damian Lillard than Montana's star senior guard Will Cherry.
As Montana made its annual visit to Portland on Thursday night to play Portland State in a Big Sky league game, it was fun to hear Tinkle, Geving and Cherry talk candidly about their former foe to Crawford's Court.
"I knew Damian would be a good pro, but not quite sure as good as he has been," Tinkle said. "The one key to his game over and above his immense talent is his work ethic. As an opposing coach that is something that stands out immediately about an opposing player. Damian has an ability that most players could learn from, play every play as hard as you can."
And Tinkle should know star power. He played 12 seasons of professional basketball in Europe after being a star player at Montana. He has parlayed his playing career into being one of the top coaches in all of college basketball. Into his seventh season at his alma mater, Tinkle's last two Grizzly teams have participated in the NCAA tournament, his overall Big Sky coaching record with a win on Thursday night reached 77-30 and his overall record at Montana is 131-75.
Like Tinkle, Geving has seen Lillard, many times at his Big Sky best, including a great game in Portland from Lillard last January of 2012, in which Lillard scored 39 points and hit a nearly impossible half court shot at the end of the first half which turned the entire game around. " I am really not surprised at all by the play of Lillard so far." said Geving, prior to Thursday night's game. "He was a terrific player in the Big Sky, so you had to figure he was going to be terrific in the pros, just watching the way he progressed in the Big Sky playing for Weber State. I also think it is fair to say, he was drafted by the right team. The Blazers needed help desperately at his position and he has more than delivered. Our whole league should be proud of him, as he has set a standard for other players in the Big Sky to follow."
Now to an opponent, that has played more games against Lillard than anyone in basketball. Will Cherry, Montana's star senior guard not only had many showdowns with Lillard in college, but many showdowns in high school as the two battled numerous times in their native Bay Area. And it is safe to say, the admiration from Cherry about Lillard can best be described by the smile on his face when he talks about him. "Damian has put in the time and work that is needed to be a great basketball player," said Cherry. " I am not surprised at all by his success and I am happy for him for several reasons, including he is a really good person."
Of course Cherry is known for his lockdown defensive skills (twice being named Big Sky Defensive Player of The Year), and he was happy to share how he shutdown Lillard in a Big Sky game in the 2011-12 season. " No matter who my opponent is, I am all about defending them, but with Damian, the keys are to knock him off the 3-point line, do not let him get started there and when he does get around you, you better have plenty of help guarding the basket area, which is what we had with last year's Montana team. Damian is the one player I have played against in my career, where it virtually took all five of us on the floor to guard him all the time, he is that good," said Cherry.
With all the glowing praise and tributes that Damian Lillard has gotten both as Big Sky player and a first year pro, perhaps Wayne Tinkle summed it up best. "I am proud of Damian and our entire league should be proud of him as he has brought the Big Sky so much attention. I also have to say, it was easy to understand that he would be a very good pro, but all-star good in this first year? Yes, in my opinion, Damian should be playing in the NBA all-star this year, let alone many years in the future."
And the positive impressions of Damian Lillard, continue to roll in, no matter who the opponent is.