Damian Lillard: Small tweaks away from elite statistics


Last season was merely another stop on Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard’s path toward super stardom. He made his first All-Star game, made an All-NBA team, and sent the Blazers to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 14 years.

Being only in his second year, the potential, if not the expectation, for Lillard to improve is strong. He already has proven his ability to do so – between his rookie and sophomore year seasons, Lillard upped his scoring per game from 19.0 to 20.7 (in fewer minutes), jumped his three-point shooting by nearly three percent (36.8 to 39.4), and dropped his turnovers from 2.8 to 2.4 per 36 minutes.

It doesn’t stop there – Lillard earned more free throws per game, shot a higher percentage on those free throws, and snagged more rebounds. If advanced stats are more your cup of tea, his PER jumped from 16.4 to 18.6, and he nearly doubled his win shares per 48 minutes.

While it wasn’t improvement completely across the board (his assists and overall shooting percentage dropped), there is no doubt that Lillard grew significantly as a player from his first to second year. What, then, can we expect from the rising young star heading into his third year?

Jan 26, 2014; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) stands next to Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) in the second quarter at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

In terms of scoring, Lillard is already near the top of his craft. He was the fourth highest scoring point guard last season, trailing only Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, and Kyrie Irving. Those three all took over 17 shots a game, though, while Lillard only took 15.9. It’s not unreasonable to see Lillard’s scoring increase simply by receiving more opportunities.

Perhaps more intriguing is what would happen if Lillard could nudge his shooting percentage a little higher. As it stands, Lillard’s 42.4% shooting percentage last year was the lowest among those four point guards, or looking even further, the lowest of the top seven scoring point guards in the league. In fact, Lillard’s shooting percentage actually dropped during his second year, down from 42.9% as a rookie.

It is completely conceivable that Lillard is able to raise his shooting percentage. Last season, Lillard averaged 6.7 makes on 15.9 attempts. To look at things in practical terms, if he is able to turn even just one miss every two games into a make, this would turn into 7.2 makes on 15.9 attempts per game, equating to a stellar shooting percentage of 45.3%. Such an improvement would also raise his scoring by one point per game, all without talking any more shots. Again, this is hypothetical, but it just serves to illustrate how close Lillard is to making some pretty large leaps in his offensive production.

As mentioned above, Lillard’s assists per game did indeed drop quite a bit between his first and second years, from 6.5 to 5.6 (still the case on a per minute basis). While Lillard is a scoring point guard, meaning he will likely never reach the gaudy assist totals of a Rajon Rondo or Ricky Rubio, his 5.6 assists per game last season left him tied for only 23rd in the league among point guards. However, given his rookie year, it is not unreasonable to think that Lillard can get back to the 6-7 assists per game range.

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When taken holistically, a handful of small improvements plus a bounce back to his rookie year production could leave Lillard as a clear cut top guard in the league. For example, while it is currently just wishful thinking and would take noticeable improvement on Lillard’s part, imagine him putting up a stat line next season of roughly 22 points, 6.5 assists, and 4 rebounds per game, on 44% shooting overall and 40% on threes.

Quite simply, that would be stellar – easily the production of a top point guard in the league. It is almost scary to think about how attainable this is for Lillard. That dream stat line would, yes, require improvements in many areas, but they are all small changes and/or have prior precedent.

Rather than try to force projections on a player, it will be more exciting to see what Lillard is actually able to do, all hypotheticals aside. He is an incredibly driven young man, and with his level of established past performance, drive to become better, and attainable improvements, he could still exceed expectations.

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