Trail Blazers: How Damian Lillard went from potential “second-round pick” to No. 6 in one season

Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images) /

Over a two-month span before the 2012 Draft, Damian Lillard went from being outside the lottery to becoming the No. 6 pick. What changed his fate so quickly?

It isn’t quite November, and there probably won’t be any turkey on the kitchen table tonight. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have some level of Thanksgiving for how the stars aligned for the Portland Trail Blazers during the weeks heading into the 2012 NBA Draft.  Almost simultaneously, two different stories were being told: one detailing how Damian Lillard and his mythical work ethic led to one of the great Draft board jumps in recent history, and two, how blessings in disguise played such a vital role.

As evidenced by both the 1984 and 2007 NBA Drafts, the basketball “gods” seldom did their part in helping align the stars to, well, help Portland acquire those stars. It’s for this reason that the outside noise of championships and dynasties shouldn’t leave us ungrateful. The story of how Damian Lillard fell into Portland’s lap deserves a revisit.

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For the half-decade following Damon Stoudamire’s departure from Portland in 2004-05, the Blazers found difficulty finding a point guard that could tilt the scales in their favor. Raymond Felton did his part in tilting the scale, but not in a good way.

In Portland’s final pre-Lillard year, Felton was working on his case towards becoming one of the most vilified players to ever come through Oregon, in large part because of his weight issues and lack of conditioning, despite decent on-off numbers.

With his statistics and percentages on the decline, and his weight and frustration on the incline, it was time to officially look to the 2012 NBA Draft for help.

Here’s where “blessing in disguise” No. 1 comes into effect.

It seldom comes up in actual discussion, but during his time at Weber State, Damian Lillard actually had to redshirt during his junior year due to a broken foot, a wish he was granted because he hadn’t played over 30 percent of that season.

But consider this: in the 2011 NBA Draft — the Draft he originally could’ve been a part of, saw four point guards taken within the first ten picks. Which means that by 2012-13, Portland fans could’ve been subjected to a less-fortune reality that sounds like the following:

“And…. starting at point guard for your Portland Trail Blazers, coming out of the University of North Carolina … No. 12 …. Kendall … Marshall!”

Lillard used that extra year to lead the Wildcats to a 24-6 record, and a No. 2 rank in scoring. Even so, because he didn’t play March Madness-type competition in the Big Sky Conference, he was essentially that black video game character with the question mark through the middle. No one knew what to expect.

In fact, CBS Sports suggested he’d be merely a second-round pick before that senior season. With that, we can generate a timeline:

Mar. 1 — Oregon Live puts out a brief mock draft, with Lillard at No. 14, offering the assessment that it “might be a bit of a stretch” to see Lillard taken this early. Re-read that again. Reputable journalists Jonathan Tjarks and Tom Ziller doubled down on SB Nation, foreseeing the Blazers taking Terrence Ross.

Damian Lillard was nowhere to be found.

By April, fortunes had changed. Pick-and-roll offense had reached its lowest point of both frequency and efficiency since 2006-07, but Portland knew it needed a more respectable attack to coax the best from LaMarcus Aldridge, which meant providing him with a partner worth fearing.

Portland was an option, as were the New Orleans Pelicans, who had an up-and-coming big by the name of Anthony Davis. Little did we know, Lillard was about to close the debate for good.

Over the next few weeks, Damian Lillard went on to produce a workout that FOX Sports called “one of the best ever,” and included that, while his point guard skills were “debatable,” he was the best guard in the NBA Draft. That workout opened his ceiling, while closing his floor. With a 40-inch vertical and a 13 bench press reps, he’d become a star on the rise.

Lillard excelled at individual team workouts with the likes of the Golden State Warriors, the Sacramento Kings — the team he said he thought would pick him — and our Portland Trail Blazers.

But, he said the Blazers had the “most different workout,” which probably suggests they knew exactly what they wanted a point guard in a Terry Stotts’ type system to do. Along the way, he gave us this gem of a quote:

"“I don’t really compare myself to anybody. I wouldn’t say I had an idol, either. I like a lot of NBA players. I really liked Vince Carter at North Carolina. I liked a lot of players, it wasn’t like nobody I tried to pattern myself after, but, I could see myself being like a Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook kind of point guard, just in the fact that I can score points.But, I’m a better playmaker than people give me credit for. And, I don’t think that I’m on their level at all, but I think that’s who my game kind of favors, those kind of point guards. And hopefully I can have the same kind of success that they’re having.”"

Lillard knew he was on the rise, but the rest of the world wasn’t yet so willing to do the same.

Grantland, a cream-of-the-crop journalism hub in the early-2010s, chronicled an entertaining back-and-forth between Bill Simmons and Chad Ford. Beneath the entertainment, it showed that the public eye, while wowed at Lillard’s draft workout, were still unsure of how to feel about him, given his coming from such an under-the-radar university. Consider this Simmons take:

"“Adding that Rivers was one of THE top high school recruits last year, you’re telling me Rivers couldn’t have done better at Weber State than Lillard did? Better pedigree, better freshman year … what am I missing? Why take Lillard over Rivers when Rivers is 25 months younger?”"

That’ll be a yikes. But it does introduce an intriguing question: could the Blazers have finagled their way into both Andre Drummond and Damian Lillard, or would the New Orleans Hornets or Detroit Pistons have undermined that plan. We’re talking about a potential five-man group that includes Drummond, Aldridge, Batum, Matthews, and Lillard. It’s a wonder because remember, the Pistons had just taken Brandon Knight in the year prior.

It sort of reminds one of the 2005 NFL Draft. Aaron Rodgers, a player who these days has an argument for the greatest quarterback of all-time, was probably better than anyone in the green room. But, since so many teams felt comfortable with their quarterback situation (that, or they feared the contractual agreements of paying a No. 1 pick QB), it meant Rodgers could go No. 1, and no one would bat an eye …. or he could slide to as far as No. 24, which was what he did.

In Lillard’s case, he went on to have the best, or second-best career of any 2012 NBA Draftee, but if he’d slid to No. 10, it would have been justifiable given other teams’ depth guards at the PG spot.

To the regret of no one, Damian Lillard went on to become arguably the best point guard in the NBA (and yes, I will argue with you about this if you disagree), and a player who if he isn’t already, could call himself the greatest Blazer player ever.

Next. Three Blazers that may have played their last game in town. dark

And that’s not too bad at all for a 48th-ranked, two-star recruit, now is it?