A month and a half ago, I raised the possibility of Damian Lillard becoming a 20 (points) and eight (assists) man. I concluded that it was within the realm of possibility, but is incredibly hard to do so. This was corroborated by a comparison to other top-tier point guards in the league, who were themselves rarely able to reach this benchmark. The sticking point is certainly the assists, which forces you to realize the genius of greats such as John Stockton, Steve Nash and Jason Kidd.
Now that the preseason is finally rolling, we have a sneak peak at how Lillard’s potential for reaching this level is coming along. First and foremost, Lillard has been and will continue to be able to score the ball. Through four preseason games, he has poured in 77 points. In the rawest sense, this is only a bit over 19 points a game, but Lillard has only averaged 28 minutes a game. Scoring 19 a game on 28 minutes of playing time is equivalent to scoring a whopping 26.5 points a game if Lillard played as many minutes as he did last season.
Yes, it’s the preseason, but that’s still pretty astounding. Even if we assume that Lillard will only play 35 minutes a game this season (which I dearly hope), at this rate he would still be scoring 24 points per game. For context, 24 points a game would have been good for sixth place in the NBA last year, ahead of every other point guard.
A huge part of this preseason success has been Lillard’s average of 6.25 attempts from the free throw line every night. Even with significantly more minutes during last season, he only averaged 3.9 attempts from the charity stripe. In fact, 6.25 attempts per game would have been good for ninth in the NBA last year, with Russell Westbrook the only point guard with more.
Now as a basketball fan, I dislike free throws and how much they slow down the game, but also as a basketball fan that likes my team to do well, I recognize just how efficient and valuable free throws are. Lillard is obviously making a concerted effort to get to the basket and attack, and the results are showing in all of the free throws he is earning.
This scoring success is all coming on 41.6% shooting. I honestly don’t know if this is a positive or a negative aspect, so I’ll just put it out there. On one hand, that is quite low (over a full percentage point lower than last season). On the other hand, even with such poor shooting, Lillard is still scoring copiously, so when his shooting percentage ultimately normalizes and climbs back up, he’ll be scoring even more. But perhaps most importantly, again, this is all just from four preseason games. Expectations and opinions, both good and bad, must be tempered by a small sample size and lower quality of play.
Lillard has no problem scoring the ball. His assists have not similarly shot up, however. Through these four games, he is averaging 4.75 per game, which seems low at first. But again, after adjusting for minutes, this works out to exactly his rate of 6.5 per game last year. Of course, we would love to see this number increase during his second year, but this may not be feasible, especially if he is focusing on attacking the basket and becoming even more of a scoring threat.
The preseason is also filled with odd lineups, new faces and, in classic Blazer fashion, injuries. In particular, with reliable contributors LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum missing time, Lillard has often had to work with a less experienced cast. All of these things actively contribute to making Lillard’s role as a distributor more difficult, so we will likely yet see an uptick in his assist production. Even just maintaining his assist rate, while scoring even more, would be quite an accomplishment.
The 20 and eight concept still seems a bit far off, due to the eight assists. Let’s face it though – eight assists is a completely arbitrary number that I like to throw around. In a vacuum, it means nothing. If Lillard keeps up this scoring rate, and settles into a 24 and 6 type of groove in 35 minutes a game, that would still be pretty special. Heck, even 23 and 5 per game would be incredible – only LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, James Harden, and Westbrook did it last season. Lillard is a special talent, and I hope to see him continue to grow as a player, which all signs point towards.