Rather Than Talking Trash, Lillard Gives Little Some Gas
As is often the case during the exhibition season, the fourth quarter of Portland's 105-94 loss to the Denver Nuggets in their preseason opener Tuesday night at Veterans Memorial Coliseum was turned over to rookies and players trying to earn contracts for the upcoming season, and for good reason. The quality of competition is still relatively close to what you'd see in a regular season game and the results don't matter, which makes for a suitable, low-pressure environment for NBA fledglings to hone their skills.
Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr., the 14th pick of the 2018 Draft who made his return to the court Tuesday night after sitting out what would have been his rookie season due to injury, took advantage of the opportunity in the second half after getting a DNP in the first, going 4-of-7 from the field for 9 points to go with three rebounds in 16 minutes.
In addition to displaying the smooth offensive repertoire that made him one of the leaders of his draft class before back issues impeded his development, the Denver rookie, who watched in street clothes as the Trail Blazers bested the Nuggets in a competitive and sometimes contentious seven-game series to advance to the Western Conference Finals, also tried out another vital NBA skill: trash talk.
"The ball comes off his hands pretty easy, seemed really confident, he said some stuff to the bench," said Damian Lillard of Porter Jr. "I was just like, it's funny. Young players are like, really confident and trying to prove they self."
But Lillard had a counter to Porter Jr.'s slick talk, which, in fairness, may or may not have been prompted by players on Portland's bench. The Trail Blazers also have a rookie in Nassir Little who was one of the most well-regarded players in his class before falling at the draft, so rather than responding to the barbs from Porter Jr., Lillard decided to channel that energy into something positive for one of his newest teammates.
Lillard got in Little's ear to remind him that he too was a first round pick, a McDonald's All-American Game MVP. As he has done with rookie teammates before -- he pulled Anfernee Simons aside last season to deliver a similar message -- Lillard challenged Little to live up to his billing, to play free and, perhaps most importantly, to never accept being disrespected on the court.
"There was a little bit of talking on the court, Dame overheard it," said Little, who finished Tuesday's loss with eight points, four rebounds, two blocks and a steal in 12 minutes. "He came up to me and said 'Hey bruh, just hoop, you a lottery pick' and that gave me a lot of confidence and allowed me to make some of the plays that I did."
— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) October 9, 2019
Soon after the challenge, Little showed off exactly what he can do. After receiving the ball past the three-point line, Little used a behind-the-back dribble to create enough space to blow past Porter Jr. and the help defender, in this case Jarred Vanderbilt, before elevating toward the rim, readjusting in the air while absorbing contact and finishing the layup for an and-one, all to the delight of the Portland bench.
"That’s really, if y’all noticed, Nas’ energy picked up out of nowhere," recalled Lillard. "It’s because I got in his ear. I was like, ‘Man, look, neither one of y’all got a single point as a professional athlete and he’s challenging you right now. So let me see something.’ I was really happy with how he responded to that."
And Little was really happy for the motivation and the morale boost.
"That was all gas by Dame, he got me that one," said Little. "For me, I've always had that ability, but having the confidence to do it in a game like setting and having that freedom and that space to attack the basket, it's a little bit different in the NBA, having that kind of space to get to the rim like that. That's my game, so I took advantage of that."
While Lillard, thanks both his play and personality, has always had a knack for counseling teammates, he's entering the point in his career where his status as being one of the NBA's best guards for much of the last decade gives him a different level of gravitas among young players. So for a player like Little, who was 14 when Lillard hit his series-winning shot versus the Houston Rockets in 2014, having a player of Lillard's caliber take an interest in his development means a bit more.
"That was big-time for me, especially having a guy like Damian Lillard, probably going to be a Hall of Famer one day, come up to me like that and challenge me in that kind of way, showing that he believes in me," said Little. "I think that's really important."
It's yet to be seen whether Little will be a fixture of Terry Stotts' rotation this season. The Blazers tend to bring young players along slowly and minutes on the wing will likely be hard to come by, so Little would be well served to make the most out of every opportunity, especially in the early going. He might not have many early chances to share the court with Lillard, but he can still receive assists from the All-Star guard.
"I think for the preseason, it's important to get guys in, kind of get a feel, test different things out," said Little. "It's extremely important because as a rookie, you're trying to find your place. You did a lot to get to this point and now you're starting at square one. Trying to kind of find an identity a little bit, ways to get on the court, ways to be productive for your team in the minutes you get and just kind of build off of that each and every game."