The Trail Blazers’ own Damian Lillard, along with Ricky Rubio and John Wall, are some of the marquee names in the next crop of talented point guards. It is no surprise, then, that each of them has been the point guard on their respective rookie year’s All-Rookie First Team. In a recent debate I encountered, popular opinion seemed to place both Rubio and Wall ahead of Lillard.
Any homerism aside, I don’t agree with this. All three are incredibly talented in different facets, and I don’t think one can be definitively crowned the best of the three. It irked me to see Lillard being written off like this.
Before even diving into on the court statistics, I will address an issue near and dear to my heart: health. Not everyone agrees, but I firmly believe that a player’s ability to stay on the court is a massive part of their skill set. Simply put, staying healthy is absolutely a skill. To that end, I will merely point out that Lillard played in all 82 games last year, to Wall’s (kneecap) 49 and Rubio’s (ACL) 57.
Perhaps it is not fair to judge Rubio so harshly for what was likely a freak injury, and Wall for what was an odd stress injury to his left knee cap (apparently from working too hard?). But, take it as you will: during his (admittedly shorter) career, Lillard has played in 100% of potential games, while Wall has appeared in 80% of his, with Rubio bringing up the rear at only 66% attendance.
Despite the injuries of the other two, last year is a great year for comparison because all three players were 22. Their backgrounds could not be more dissimilar, however. Rubio came over from Europe, Wall was a ‘one and done’ college product, and Lillard stayed in college for all four years.
Here is a table from last season comparing all three players head to head, in terms of production per 36 minutes:
It is readily apparent that Lillard leaves the other two in the dust in terms of shooting. Besides leading the group in free throw percentage, he also has the highest shooting percentage for two-point shots, despite taking the lowest percentage of his shots at the rim compared to the other two (26.2% for Lillard, 31.7% for Rubio, and 29.8% for Wall). This means that Lillard was taking and making more difficult two-pointers than the other two, and at a higher rate of success.
The outlook only grows rosier when we add in three-pointers. Lillard absolutely leaves Wall and Rubio in the dust in this aspect. Not only does Lillard have a nearly 8% shooting advantage for threes over the next closest (Rubio), but he accomplished this while shooting nearly three more threes per 36 minutes than the other two combined. In today’s NBA world, the three-point shot is necessary, and I worry about the ceilings of Rubio and Wall if they don’t develop theirs.
A lack of three point shooting ability can become particularly exploitable during a playoff series, when opposing teams seek out and abuse any potential area of weakness. This was never more apparent than during the 2010 NBA Finals, when Kobe ruthlessly used Rondo’s lack of range against him by sagging nearly to the top of the key.
Lillard is clearly behind both Rubio and Wall in terms of assists and rebounds. There’s no sugarcoating that, but it isn’t necessarily a deal breaker either. As I have noted before, the rebound totals for guards can be heavily dependent on coaching strategies, so I’m least concerned about that. The assists are something that both Wall and Rubio have in their favor. The gaudy assist numbers are especially impressive for Wall, who was able to produce such high numbers while also being called upon to score.
I suspect that a similar necessity for point production was responsible for some deflation of Lillard’s assist totals. Often times he was forced to look to score himself instead of passing, especially when he wasn’t surrounded by reliable teammates on the court. It’s neither good nor bad, but it looks like this trend will continue this season, as Lillard has been pouring in points, without as much of an emphasis on assists.
In final miscellaneous stats, Rubio is vastly superior to the other two at stealing the ball, and Wall averaged nearly a block per 36 minutes last season, which is very impressive for a guard. Lillard has the edge at avoiding fouls, though, which is definitely a benefit in the playoffs (when foul trouble can become a huge issue).
When the dust settles, these are three incredibly talented, young point guards, who will be gracing the league with their talents for years to come. Wall has blazing speed, Rubio has slick passes, and Lillard has the shooting ability. To say that any of the three are clearly superior to the others is just folly at this point. As a Blazers fan, though, I am incredibly happy that Lillard can shoot the three.