The liberation of Lillard: At All-Star Break, Damian Lillard got his body, and mind, right

The liberation of Lillard: At All-Star Break, Damian Lillard got his body, and mind, right

When Damian Lillard retreated to his Lake Oswego home during the All-Star Break last month, he did more than just rest his aching body.

He healed a troubled mind, and worried heart.

As much as the Trail Blazers’ 23-33 record at the time was bothering him, so too was a family matter that touched him to his core.

“If it’s really in my heart, it’s going to weigh on me, consume me,’’ Lillard said while touching his chest.

Lillard asked that the issue remain private, but he admitted it had seeped so deeply into him that it affected his sleep, his focus, his persona, and ultimately, his play.

“It wasn’t like I was going through something off the court, then it was working out on the court,’’ Lillard remembered. “It was like – we’re losing games, we’re not performing like we need to, I’m not playing my best basketball, and I’ve got things stressing me off the floor. It was kind of a tough spot.’’

So during the mid-February break, he holed up in his Lake Oswego home and did something he hasn’t done in some time:

He opened himself up and let those close to him inside.

From his home, he phoned his grandmother. His uncle. And three times he spoke with his former college assistant coach, whom he calls one of the most important people in his life.

“That was the first time in a long time that I allowed people to pour into me, to give something to me,’’ Lillard said.

By the time the break was over, Lillard said more than his ankle had healed. He had become liberated from a burden he had carried for much of the season.

“A weight,’’ Lillard said, “was lifted off my back.’’

That weight has freed him to assume a more familiar load – the Trail Blazers – and since the All-Star Break Lillard has been one of the NBA’s most dominant players, carrying the Blazers from the precipice of a disappointing season to the cusp of perhaps a memorable late-season run.

Lillard is averaging 31.2 points since the break, a mark eclipsed only by Russell Westbrook, while leading the Blazers to a 9-4 record and to within one game of Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot.

Never was his newfound liberation more on display than the last week, when the Blazers went 4-1 on a crucial five-game trip. Lillard averaged 36 points while shooting 53.8 percent from the field and 54.8 percent from three point range, which was capped by a 49-point performance Sunday at Miami.

On Monday, Lillard was named the Western Conference Player of the Week for the third time in his career. 

“Dame,’’ coach Terry Stotts said, “is leading the charge.’’

**

Lillard, of course, is not unique in encountering personal struggles during the course of a season.

Teammate Maurice Harkless said he has dealt with personal issues both last season and this season. And Meyers Leonard recently revealed his beloved Siberian Husky, Bella, was diagnosed with lymphoma and is undergoing chemotherapy.

“We all go through things; we are human,’’ Harkless said. “I’m not going to go too deep into detail, but there’s been times in my career where you have family stuff, stuff with your friends, or something happens to you, and when you wake up, if affects your mood the whole day.’’

Leonard two weeks ago was on the road when he learned of Bella’s sickness, and was so devastated that he had trouble sleeping, let alone focusing on the game. When the team celebrated a victory in the locker room at Oklahoma City, Leonard was by himself, crying.

“Almost every NBA player deals with more than people think,’’ Leonard said. “Yes, we are treated so well, but a lot of times people see us almost as robots. It’s almost like we don’t have feelings.’’

Harkless said so much goes into being a professional athlete, both mentally and physically, that it starts the minute you wake up.

“The game is not just two hours on the court,’’ Harkless said. “It’s the whole day. Preparation starts when you wake up. So when you are going through something else, it affects your mood, affects the way you prepare, affects the way you play. It’s as simple as that.’’

There were signs something was amiss with Lillard. His bottle-rocket start to the season, which put him in the early MVP conversation, tailed off amid shaky shooting and rashes of turnovers. Radio talk shows wondered if he had become content playing in the first season of his $125 million contract, or disengaged with the team’s poor start.

More tangible signs could be seen in his body language. His smile and playfulness were not as easily displayed, instead replaced by a quietness and steely stare. And his interactions with the media, where he is always one of the most cooperative and insightful interviews in the league, started becoming shorter, and more terse.

After the Blazers’ last game before the All-Star Break, in Utah, Lillard stayed in the arena long after the team had departed. With his head down, Lillard sat in the shadows underneath the bleachers with assistant David Vanterpool, engaged in a long conversation.

 “I was trying to do what I need to do on the court, but I also had some personal things with my family, and I was trying to manage all this stuff,’’ Lillard said. “It was wearing me out. It was just hard.’’

Around the All-Star Break, Lillard talked with his mentor, Phil Beckner – the former assistant coach of Lillard at Weber State who is now with Boise State. Beckner, who has travelled to China with Lillard and trains with him during the summer, said he could sense something was wrong.

“He looked like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders,’’ Beckner recalled.

Over the course of the week-long break, Beckner said the two had three one-hour phone conversations.

Those conversations, Lillard said, opened the door to his liberation.

**

For as long as Lillard can remember, this is how he would handle a conversation within his circle:

“Hey Dame, you good?”

“Yeah, I’m good. How are you?’’

From there, Lillard would absorb the life, and sometimes problems, of those people.

“Automatically, I would always flip it to ‘what’s up with you?’’’ Lillard said. “For me, I’ve always tried to be there for people.’’

But somewhere in all those conversations, somewhere in all the goodwill Lillard was  bestowing upon family, friends and co-workers, he forgot about himself.

Beckner could sense Lillard was becoming bottled up with emotion and that it was starting to overwhelm.

“I thought where he was with how the team was doing, and with the other stuff he was going through, he was trying to get it all done in a hurry, and on his own,’’ Beckner said.

So the former coach offered some advice.

“He told me I have to allow people to pour into you,’’ Lillard said. “He said I can’t always be the one to pour into other people, because I would drain myself. So he told me to open myself up and allow people to pour into me so I can have something to give.’’

So during the All-Star Break, save for nightly workouts at the practice facility, Lillard said he didn’t leave his home. Inside, he picked up the phone and took Beckner’s advice. He opened himself, and his problems, to his family.

“Had a long conversation with grandma. We talked about it,’’ Lillard said. “Called my uncle. We talked about it. It was real helpful. When people genuinely love you, and they care about you and they know who you are as a person,  they can come forward, and that’s what my family did. Just hearing those voices and having that support, it allowed me to relax.’’

**

When Lillard and the Blazers reconvened in Orlando after the All-Star Break, it was clear the team’s star had returned to his old self.

After a sterling fourth quarter performance in a win over Orlando, Lillard remarked how his body felt refreshed. It wasn’t until nearly a month later, during a practice in Atlanta, that Lillard revealed his mind was healed, too.

“Once I was able to get to the break, I was able to check in on things, step away, and speak to my people,’’ Lillard said. “Then, I was able to move on from it.’’

Since then, he has been moving the Blazers closer and closer to the playoffs. With a series of stirring games, Lillard has carried the Blazers to wins in eight of their last 10 games.

On the recent 4-1 trip, he ignited each game with inspiring first quarters, averaging more than 12 points in the opening stanza.

“I think it’s just important to come out and establish the mindset ‘We comin’,’’ Lillard said. “As a leader, it’s important for me to spark that up, and I guess put that urgency in our minds that this is the way it’s going to be.’’

He can help establish that mindset because now, his own mind is clear and free.

Up next: Milwaukee at Blazers, 7 p.m. Tuesday (CSN)

Hooked on a feeling: Neil Olshey was sold on Zach Collins in January

Hooked on a feeling: Neil Olshey was sold on Zach Collins in January

It was in January this year when Neil Olshey had a feeling about Zach Collins.

Throughout his career as an NBA executive, Olshey had often experienced a defining  moment in his evaluation of college players that changed his view of a player from a prospect to a target.

On Thursday, Olshey used his latest feeling to trade up in the NBA draft to select Collins – a 7-footer from Gonzaga -- with the 10th overall pick.

“He is a franchise-level building block,’’ Olshey said.

It’s not the first time Olshey has felt this way about a player.

In 2013, Olshey drove through an east-coast snowstorm to watch a Lehigh guard named CJ McCollum. It wasn’t the 34 points McCollum scored that night against Bryant College that stuck with him. And it wasn’t the fact McCollum missed a floater at the buzzer to win it.

It was how the loss gutted McCollum to the point where he stayed motionless in the key after the buzzer sounded. To Olshey, it showed a player who cared more about winning than his individual stats.

That summer, Olshey took McCollum with the 10th pick, and McCollum today has emerged as one of the NBA’s most prolific and creative scorers.

The year before, in 2012, after an afternoon of workouts with draft prospects, Olshey picked up a point guard named Damian Lillard on the way to a dinner with owner Paul Allen. Olshey was fresh on the job with the Blazers and didn’t know the area beyond the Blazers’ practice facility, and soon found himself lost en route to Oswego Grill.

“I remember he didn’t know where he was going,’’ Lillard would say later. “We got off on the wrong exit. Then we had the right exit, but were going the wrong way … and he was all mad, saying ‘Where the hell we at!’’’

During it all, Olshey remembered looking over at Lillard. He was calm. Cool. Unfazed. And as Lillard recalled, he remembered telling Olshey, “I know you are going to find it.’’

To Olshey, that moment of chaos revealed something special about Lillard. The young point guard was cool under pressure. And he was supportive of a teammate, even if it was an executive stressing behind the wheel.

A few weeks later, Olshey took Lillard with the No. 6 overall pick, and Lillard has shown the same traits both on and off the court as he has become on of the NBA’s marquee players.

Which brings us to January, and Collins, and Olshey’s latest moment.

The scene was the University of Portland’s Chiles Center and the event was Gonzaga at Portland, where Olshey and assistant general manager Bill Branch went to scout Collins.

At the time, the Blazers were scuffling through a disappointing season, were out of the playoff picture, yet to inflicted with Nurkic Fever. They were targeting lottery picks and were unsure whether they would find a target at the West Coast Conference game.

But soon, they saw a 7-footer who had a nice shooting touch. He also defended. He was also tough and competitive. Then, there was one play that sealed it. It wasn’t as subtle as the McCollum or Lillard moments, but it was enough to turn him from prospect to target.

“He caught a ball on the left block, got doubled teamed, and threw a behind-the-back, no-look pass,’’ Olshey said.

He turned to Branch.

“I said, OK Billy, we can go home,’’ Olshey said. “We’re done. Top 10 pick. We knew right then.’’

**

Funny thing is, in one way, Collins beat Olshey to the punch when determining his fate.

In October of 2012, when Collins was 14, he was playing the NBA 2k video game, which enables you to create yourself as a player. Collins created his profile and entered the video game’s draft.

He was selected by the Trail Blazers with the 11th overall pick, which he captured with a photo and tweeted.

As he remembers, Collins that season with the Blazers on the video game won the Rookie of the Year.

“Possibly MVP,’’ Collins said.

Nearly five years later, Collins acknowledged that video games are easier than real basketball, but that didn’t stop him from aspiring to match his 2012 “award.”

“I don’t see why I cant be the Rookie of the Year,’’ Collins said.

While Olshey touted the Las Vegas-native as a franchise-level building block, he also cautioned that Collins might take some time to make an impact, especially on a deep  and experienced team like the Blazers.

Still, Olshey offered a glowing assessment.

“He’s the whole package,’’ Olshey said. “He’s a big-time rim protector, a great one-on-one defender, a big time post defender, he can really pass it … he can stretch the floor, score over both shoulders … he’s everything you look for in a big man in our league today.’’

**

By Thursday morning, Olshey and his staff knew they wanted Collins, but weren’t sure he was attainable. The Blazers owned the 15th, 20th and 26th picks and long knew Collins wouldn’t last until the 15th pick based in part by their inability to get him to Portland for a workout.

“We had no shot to get him in (to Portland for a workout),’’ Olshey said. “There was no way he was going to be there at 15. I think we got lucky he got to 10.’’

Olshey figured the key would be Sacramento at 5 and New York at 8. If the Kings didn’t get a point guard with the No. 5 pick, the conventional wisdom was they would use 10 to pick either Frank Ntilikina or Dennis Smith. But once Boston drafted Jayson Tatum at No. 3, it opened the way for the Kings to take point guard De’Aaron Fox at five, giving them flexibility to explore trades.

And when Ntilikina went to the Knicks at eight – not Malik Monk like some had projected – he knew it was time to pounce at the chance to get Collins.

So Olshey swapped 15 and 20 with the Kings for No. 10.

“He’s the only guy we would move both picks to get,’’ Olshey said.

In reality, Olshey’s anxiety about Collins started in March as Collins started taking on a bigger role in Gonzaga’s run through the conference and NCAA tournaments.

“He just kept playing better and better, and we kept getting more and more frustrated, knowing the more minutes he got, the more the rest of the country was going to catch up,’’ Olshey said.

In the end, Olshey followed his gut and that feeling from January, and got his man.

The plan is to play Collins as a backup to Jusuf Nurkic, and perhaps at times alongside Nurkic against bigger lineups.

Collins says he doesn’t want to pigeon-hole himself as a center or a power forward, he just wants to play, improve, and mostly, win. Other than that, he says he doesn’t know much about the team outside of the latest players who Olshey had a “feeling” about -- Lillard and McCollum.

“I just know they are a tough team and they don’t really back down from anybody – and those are traits I grew up with and those are part of my game as well,’’ Collins said. “I think … I can fit in perfectly there.’’

Trail Blazers may have addressed several needs with draft picks

Trail Blazers may have addressed several needs with draft picks

If you want to go down a checklist of things the Trail Blazers could have sought in the 2017 draft that would make their team better, it might go this way:

  • Outside shooting in the front court.
  • Rim protection.
  • Overall defensive improvement.
  • Toughness.
  • More players who can pass.

And after the draft, you might just be able to put a checkmark next to all those categories.

Portland traded two first-round picks for Gonzaga center/forward Zach Collins at No. 10 and then selected Purdue forward Caleb Swanigan at No. 26.

Collins, a seven-footer, doesn't lack for confidence, calmly telling the Portland media via conference call, "I don't see why I can't be rookie of the year."

Neil Olshey, Portland's director of basketball operations, called him "a franchise-level building block" and pushed Collins as a rim-protector, one-on-one defender, pick-and-roll defender and gritty competitor. "We got lucky he got to 10," Olshey said.

Swanigan, a 6-9 forward who can pass and make threes, is known for what is now his rags-to-riches story of attending 15 different schools and living in homeless shelters before getting his weight under control and his life together. "An incredible kid... a great story," Olshey said.

If social media is any indication (and it's not always) the Blazer fan base came away from draft night with a degree of disappointment. There was no blockbuster trade involving Jimmy Butler or Paul George and no drafting of any of the available Oregon Ducks.

But Olshey is sticking to the plan he's had since taking over this roster. "At the end of the day, we have to do what's right, long-term," he said.

The Blazers have built around Damian Lillard and his career arc. The idea is to accumulate players around Lillard's age or younger, then grow them together and be ready as a team for a championship run when Lillard reaches his peak.  Collins is still 19 and Swanigan turned 20 just a couple of months ago so both will need development time.

But front-court players who can make threes, pass and defend always have a shot at playing time. Collins, I would expect, has a real shot at earning rotation minutes as a rookie. Swanigan is one of those players who doesn't quite fit a position but is what Olshey called "a basketball player" -- and the league is shifting more and more to players who don't necessarily fit a stereotype.

How will it work out? Nobody really knows... but it's going to be fun to watch.

2017 Draft Profile: Oregon forward Jordan Bell

2017 Draft Profile: Oregon forward Jordan Bell

Jordan Bell

Oregon Junior

Age: 22

Height: 6'9"

Weight: 227

Wingspan: 6'11 ¾"

Season Averages: 11.0 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.8 assists  

Fun Fact: Bell is the all-time leading shot-blocker in Oregon basketball history with 221 career blocks.
 

***For even more information on Jordan Bell check out the Draft Profile video above.

2017 Draft Profile: UNC small forward Justin Jackson

2017 Draft Profile: UNC small forward Justin Jackson

Justin Jackson

North Carolina Junior SF

Age: 22

Height: 6'8"

Weight: 193

Wingspan: 6'11"

Season Averages: 18.4 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists

Fun Fact: According to goheels.com, if Jackson wasn't playing basketball he would like to try and master ping pong.
 

***For even more information on Justin Jackson check out the Draft Profile video above.

Bringing some 'dog' to the Blazers: Jordan Bell says he would be a good fit in Portland

Bringing some 'dog' to the Blazers: Jordan Bell says he would be a good fit in Portland

Playing last season in Eugene, Jordan Bell was able to catch just enough Trail Blazers games to know that he would be a good fit for Portland should they select him in Thursday’s NBA draft.

“I think I fit very well,’’ the Ducks’ forward said. “Obviously, the (Blazers’) bigs weren’t as tough this year, in my opinion, so I think I could bring that dog to this team. Be the tough guy on defense ... ancoring the defense.’’

Bell, who on Monday worked out for the Blazers, said he thinks he will be drafted anywhere from 18th to 31st. He said he knows that Indiana and Atlanta have shown interest, and if he could choose a dream scenario, he would be picked by one of the Los Angeles teams (his hometown) or the Blazers.

The Blazers own the 15th, 20th and 26th picks.

“That would be the best,’’ Bell said of the prospects of Portland selecting him. “I like the rain, the weather and the people around here are some of the nicest I’ve met. ‘’

Bell said Thursday was his 12th and final workout with NBA teams, and he rated his Blazers’ workout among his best. He competed against North Carolina wing Justin Jackson, Cal forward Ivan Rabb, Kansas State forward Wesley Iwundu and international 7-footer Isaiah Hartenstein.

“I didn’t shoot it as well as I wanted to, but playing, it’s probably one of my best performances,’’ Bell said. “Just the way I played – matchups, the way I defended on the ball, switching, off the ball, the energy I played with … I just played within  myself.’’

Bell’s stock seems to be on the rise as Thursday’s draft nears, as he has gone from a mid-second round projection to as high as a late-first rounder in some mocks.

He boasts that his resume is unique in that it is straight-forward and no frills: He is a versatile defender, comfortable guarding anyone from a point guard to a center, and he will arrive to a team willing to do whatever it takes to win.

“I get more of a thrill blocking a shot than making a shot,’’ Bell said.

He said his approach and his style of play is molded largely by Golden State star Draymond Green.

“All my life people have said they don’t know what position I am, they don’t know what I do well ,’’ Bell said. “Same thing with (Draymond Green): you don’t know what position he is … 6-7, can guard 1 through 5 , a real defensive force, offensively whatever the team needs to win, finding shooters, understanding his role, knowing his personnel around him.’’

Bell, who is listed at 6-foot-9 and 224 pounds, said he has been working on the NBA corner three, but said he doesn’t expect to play outside of his talents after averaging 10.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks as a junior for the Ducks, when he was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.

“I think a lot of people coming out of college were top scorer – averaging 20 and then they have to adapt to a role,’’ Bell said. “Me, exactly what I did in college is exactly what teams are going to ask me to do. They are not going to ask me to stop shooting the ball, because I already don’t shoot the ball. They are just going to ask me to keep defending, blocking shots and playing within myself.’’

2017 Draft Profile: Cal PF Ivan Rabb

2017 Draft Profile: Cal PF Ivan Rabb

Ivan Rabb

Cal Sophomore PF/C  

Age: 20

Height: 6'10"

Weight: 215

Wingspan: 7'1 ½"

Season Averages: 14.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists

Fun Fact: Growing up Rabb lived right across the street from Trail Blazers’ star Damian Lillard in their Oakland neighborhood.  Rabb talked about Lillard at the NBA Combine in May and told CSNNW, 'I’ve been knowing him for a time and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten to know him a little more.'

 

***For even more information on Ivan Rabb check out the Draft Profile video above.

Blazers bring in the big guns days before the Draft

Blazers bring in the big guns days before the Draft

It's NBA Draft week! And the Trail Blazers are flexing their muscles three days before the Draft by bringing in some high flyers: Justin Jackson, Jordan Bell and Ivan Rabb.

Jackson, who played on the National Champion North Carolina Tar Heels, won the ACC Player of the Year Award, leading UNC with 18.3 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. He is a projected top-20 pick. 

Former Duck Jordan Bell is at Monday's workout, as well. His Draft stock has been climbing since the NBA Combine where he registered the fastest shuttle run time in Combine history. The PAC-12 Defensive Player of the Year, Bell averaged 10.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game as a junior. He is a projected late first-round to early second round pick. 

Rabb, an early entrant into this year's Draft, has a special connection to Blazers Damian Lillard. The 6'10" forward grew up across the street from the Blazers point guard and went to hometown UC Berkeley where he averaged 14 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. 

Isaiah Hartenstein, who played for Zalgiris Kaunas in Lithuania but was born in Eugene, Oregon, also provides some intrigue into Monday's list of pre-draft workout attendees. 

Here's the Draft profiles of each:

 

2017 Draft Profile: Zalgiris International C/PF Isaiah Hartenstein

2017 Draft Profile: Zalgiris International C/PF Isaiah Hartenstein

Isaiah Hartenstein

Zalgiris International C/PF

Age: 19

Height: 7'0"

Weight: 225

Wingspan: 7'2 ¼"

Season Averages: 1.0 point, 0.8 rebounds and 0.2 assists in five games played while averaging 3.2 minutes per contest  

Fun Fact: Isaiah Hartenstein was born in Eugene where his father Flo was a stand-out basketball player for the Oregon Ducks.  Isaiah spent the first 11 years of his life in Eugene before his family moved to Germany for Flo’s professional career.
 

***For even more information on Isaiah Hartenstein check out the Draft Profile video above.

2017 Draft Profile: Duke SG Luke Kennard

2017 Draft Profile: Duke SG Luke Kennard

Luke Kennard

Duke Sophomore SG

Age: 20

Height: 6'6"

Weight: 202

Wingspan: 6'5 ¼"

Season Averages: 19.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists

Fun Fact: In addition to Kennard being a big time scorer on the basketball court, he was also one of the top high school quarterbacks in the state of Ohio.

 

***For even more information on Luke Kennard check out the Draft Profile video above.