Damian Lillard wore No. 1 for three-plus magnificent seasons at tiny Weber State, was selected with the No. 6 pick in the NBA Draft and now wears No. 0 with the Portland Trail Blazers.
Why No. 0?
“I chose it because I’m from Oakland, I went to school in Ogden and now I play in Oregon,” Lillard said.
After his first three NBA games, the 6-foot-3 Lillard added another “O” to reflect his number choice of “0,” as in the “Big O,” as in Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson. Lillard became the only rookie other than Robertson to begin his career with three consecutive games of scoring at least 20 points and dishing out seven assists to get the rebuilding Blazers off to a 2-1 start.
“I don’t know if surprised is the word, but I hadn’t really focused on doing that,” Lillard said Monday night prior to the fourth game of his career against the Dallas Mavericks. “I’ve just been going with the flow, just playing the game and that’s just how it’s been coming.”
The flow hit a brick wall in Dallas as Lillard struggled for the first time against the Mavs’ equally quick point guard Darren Collison, who is off to his own spectacular start with his new team. Lillard’s night got off to a bad start with two fouls in the first 3:18 of the game, sending him to the bench with one fewer foul than he had committed in the first 115 minutes of his career.
He never got found a rhythm after that, finishing with 13 points on 2-for-13 shooting — 1-for-8 from 3-point range — and five assists. His off-target shooting plummeted his averages after starting 24-for-51 from the floor. Give Collison plenty of credit, he’s been tough on opponents, applying pressure in the backcourt and cutting off driving lanes.
Just don’t expect Lillard to be bothered by his off night. He and the Blazers begin a tough three-game homestand Thursday night against the Los Angeles Clippers, followed by San Antonio and Atlanta.
If Lillard, 22, is anything, he’s cool and not easily fazed. He’s been that way since high school when major college programs mostly ignored him until his final summer playing AAU ball. By then he ignored the advice of some around him and told the power programs to buzz off. He decided on the first school that courted him and made him feel comfortable — the Big Sky Conference’s Weber State.
And he stayed there four years. He could have made it five, having had his junior in 2010 season wiped out and medical redshirt granted due to a broken foot 10 games into that season. Playing in 104 college games, learning how to captain a team and overcome adversity, Lillard said, is helping him quickly adjust to the NBA roller coaster.
He’s realistic, too. Asked what he views will be the stiffest challenge throughout his fast-starting rookie campaign, Lillard nailed it as he prepared to face Collison, who dominated their individual matchup in Dallas’ 114-91 victory with 14 points and 13 assists.
“I think the biggest thing is my position,” Lillard said. “My position is probably the toughest night in and night out. Point guard is probably the toughest to play against.”
On cue, here come All-Stars Chris Paul, Tony Parker and up-and-comer Jeff Teague.