Posted Jan 30 2012 12:44AM
In life there are everyday, garden-variety lucky breaks, and then there are the lucky breaks like the one Weber State junior point guard Damian Lillard received last season.
Lillard's break was both literal and fortuitous, though after he suffered a broken bone in his right foot that cost him all but nine games of the 2010-11 season, he wasn't feeling all that lucky. Lillard, a self-improvement junkie, wondered how the heck he was supposed to work on his game dragging around a heavy cast.
He posed that question to his coach, Randy Rahe, when the latter suggested that being sidelined was ideal for game improvement.
"I said, 'Coach, I've got this boot on my foot. What do you think I can get done with that?' " Lillard said.
Rahe, schooled in the fine art of coaching basketball while working 13 seasons on the staff of Utah State master tactician Stew Morrill, had a couple of suggestions. Rahe pointed Lillard in two directions -- the weight room and the film room.
Lillard, who had played in so few games he still could receive a medical redshirt, took his coach's advice to the extreme, packing muscle onto his 6-foot-3 frame and reaching the goal of bench-pressing 300 pounds Rahe had set for him. Then there was the film work. Encouraged by Rahe to watch some of his past performances, Lillard poured over tape from all 71 of his career games.
All that weight training and film work has paid off for Lillard, who leads the nation in scoring (25.1 ppg). But points are far from the measure of his worth. Lillard's other significant numbers range anywhere from solid to outstanding. He's averaging 5.8 rebounds -- exceptional for a college guard -- and 3.6 assists. His assist-to-turnover ratio is 2-1. And his shooting percentages are impressive across the board: .468 from the field, .455 from 3-point range and .909 from the free-throw line, where he's attempted 143 shots.
Weber State also has been a beneficiary of Lillard's efforts. The Wildcats are 15-3, 7-0 in the Big Sky Conference and have won nine straight heading into a Jan. 26 game at Sacramento State.
There's one more side benefit: Lillard has attracted the attention of NBA scouts looking for the next Norris Cole, and his stock continues to rise. Some Draft analysts believe Lillard would be a first-round pick if he chose to leave school, which is no guarantee.
In hindsight, Lillard now calls that broken foot "a blessing in disguise."
"I took a lot from [being sidelined]," Lillard said. "I got stronger, and then from watching all those game tapes, I started to figure out how I could get better at what I was already good at, and good at some areas where I wasn't so good.
"I also got smarter watching games and watching practice; it was kind of like being a coach. Dealing with an injury for the first time in my career made me a mentally stronger person. I started to appreciate the game more. And as a person -- off the court, not even involved in basketball -- I had time to get away and mature."
Lillard has become one of those stories that make college basketball so great. Unheralded as a high school player in Oakland, Calif., Lillard was recommended to Rahe by an old friend who happened to be Lillard's AAU coach.
"The first time I saw him play, I said to my assistant, 'We ain't getting him.' " Rahe said. "But we were the first ones to get started recruiting him, and we hung in there [amid interest] from some lower Pac-10 schools and Mountain West schools.
"Damian's different. He doesn't care about levels, like, 'I'm going to play for a Pac-10 school' or whatever. He wanted to go where he could play as a freshman. He wanted to win and be around people he could trust and teammates he could trust. We stayed with him. We got very fortunate."
Lillard is that rarest of breed in the college game -- a scoring point who can balance both of his primary tasks. It's a fine line between knowing when to score and when to facilitate. Lillard has mastered the art.
"For the points Damian scores, he's never needed a lot of shots," Rahe said. "Early in games especially, he understands that he needs to get his teammates involved. We run quite a few sets, and he knows he needs to execute those sets and get the ball moving so everybody's involved."
"I've got to get everybody else looks and get them going so everything will loosen up on me," Lillard said. "My teammates do a great job of knocking down shots and making teams pay for all the attention they give me. Once it loosens up on me, that's when I attack and make them pay."
Though Lillard's name has been showing up on NBA Draft boards, he's still pondering the possibility of returning to Weber State for his senior season. His attitude toward the next level is as uncommon as it is refreshing.
"Right now I'm only worried about winning games," he said, "and earning the results of working hard. Everything else will take care of itself. I'm trying to stay in the moment. When my mind starts to wander places, I focus on sticking to what got me where I am."
Lillard's grounding comes from a strong family that hasn't rushed him into a decision to turn pro and offered little to no sympathy when he was injured.
"When I got hurt, my family didn't feel badly for me or let me mope around," Lillard said. "You're hurt, you can't play, but you can't pout about it. It's over and now it's time to move on to the next thing."
Lillard has another support system, too, a group of six friends that banded together in early childhood and shielded one another from the dangers and temptations of the inner city. Basketball was the way out for P.J. Taylor, his brother T.J., Dondrale Campbell, Drake Green, Mark Samuels and Davion Berry, all of whom are playing in college. Berry, who started his college career at Cal State Monterey Bay, has joined Lillard at Weber State and is sitting out this season.
"We all grew up together; since elementary school," Lillard said. "And we played on the same travel teams. We always were around each other, even outside of basketball, and we held each other accountable for getting the job done in the classroom.
"Where we came from, we knew it wasn't going to be handed to us. It's rare. A lot of times, there's somebody in your circle that's different and could easily drag you into something that you don't need to be doing. But every one of us bought in 100 percent. That's extremely fortunate."
Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.
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