After 10 Months Away, Lillard Looks To Assert Himself During Preseason Play

In the past, Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard has played sparingly during preseason play.

He’s never needed the reps to get into shape, he shoulders considerable responsibility during the regular season and the possibility of his groin injury -- which has since been addressed by undergoing surgery last season -- flaring up gave him nor the team much reason to push for significant minutes in exhibitions. He’d always play in at least a few preseason contests, if for no other reason than to develop on-court chemistry with his teammates, but those minutes wouldn’t usually amount to much, and he’d typically sit out a few of those contests completely.

But the 6-3 point guard out of Weber State is in a different place entering his 11th season. After missing most of the 2021-22 season after undergoing a procedure to repair that core muscle injury, Lillard is ready to start the process of re-introducing himself. And that starts this preseason.

“I’m playing,” said Lillard. “Obviously I’m not going to be out there every single game but I may play all of them except one. I feel good playing, I feel good moving around, I feel like I’m in a solid rhythm, but I just want to find my game timing, find my game in real games. That takes playing in a real game.”

How much Lillard plays during Portland’s preseason schedule, which starts Monday, October 3 versus the Clippers and ends four games later versus the Warriors on October 11, will ultimately be up to head coach Chauncey Billups. But after undergoing surgery in January to get his body right and taking some time away to do the same with his mind, Lillard is looking forward to getting back into game action. He’s not anxious or out to prove anything, he’s just ready to play again.

“I’m been preparing for 10 months to play again and to be right, so I feel real calm about it, I don’t feel emotional about it at all,” said Lillard. “Just recharged and excited to play, in its simplest form. I’m not like ‘Man, I’m about to show ‘em!’ I just know I’m prepared to do well. I know that’s how it’s going to go so I feel real calm about it.”

It’s a bit of a paradox that Lillard, despite having not played in a game since a loss to the Lakers in Los Angeles on New Year’s Eve 2021, enters the 2022 campaign not worrying about his body nearly as much as in seasons past. Previously -- and particularly in the last two season -- Lillard would simply have to hope his abdomen didn’t “lock up” as he prepared for the start of the season, so much so that he would not participate in significant portions of training camp. Now, nine months after undergoing surgery at the Vincera Institute in Philadelphia, the All-Star point guard is as confident in his body as he’s been in years.

“I already know, I’m not worried about my body at all,” said Lillard. “It’s more the timing, the game rhythm. I mean, I played five-on-five for two months now, but in a game, it’s just different. Practice might be a little more physical, certain fouls ain’t going to get called, on you or for you. Getting into a game rhythm, that’s the only thing I’m focused on, I’m not even thinking about body stuff, which is new for me.”

He’s also eager to see how he fits into Portland’s remade roster. Between the players acquired via trade over the last eight months, free agent signings and rookies, Lillard has never seen game action with nine players under contract on the Trail Blazers’ roster, making the 2022 preseason a prime opportunity to develop some on-court chemistry before the start of the regular season.

“To me, that’s equally as interesting,” said Lillard. “We’ve got a new way about us than we’ve had in a long time. It’s fresh, we’ve got a lot of new guys, we’ve got a lot of talent. Guy like Jerami (Grant) and Josh (Hart) and Gary (Payton) who have established themselves in their careers at this point. It’s new, so I’m looking forward to that. Just asserting myself, especially during this preseason. Like, asserting myself as who I am and what I do and making that all link, making that all connect in a way that we can be a good team.”

Just how good the Trail Blazers will be this year won’t be decided during preseason play. It’ll take time for a team with so many new players to come together, the starting small forward is still to-be-determined and the work of reshaping the style of play under Billups is ongoing, but for his part, Lillard is serious about the process, that that begins during preseason.

“This the first time in a while that I’m feeling good,” said Lillard. “Nagging things always come up because it’s just a fast-paced, intense game, but I just know I’m coming into it where I’m not concerned about my body. So I’m not going to come out like ‘I’m just taking it easy, just getting myself into shape in preseason.’ I’m going to actually play. I’ll be out there and I think I’ll be playing a good amount of minutes.”