NEW ORLEANS -- Pretty astonishing, when you think about it, how Damian Lillard will be the most exposed player on the flashiest weekend of the NBA season, and yet two years ago, nobody knew who he was. A player with a small resume coming out of a small school rarely if ever resonates in the NBA, at least for very long, and certainly not in the league's showpiece event.
Lillard still may not be a household name come Monday, but if you watch even a second of All-Star Weekend, he'll be in your household. The three-point contest? He's in that. The dunk contest? Yes, that too, all 6-foot-3 of him. The "Rising Stars" rookie-sophomore game? Absolutely, count the second-year pro in. Skills contest? Yep. (Better question: Who even knew there was a skills contest?)
And the main event on Sunday? Yes, as one of the league's top point guards, which is quite a statement considering the swell of elites at that position, Lillard earned his way to the All-Star Game by being consistent and clutch, and by keeping the surprising Trail Blazers on the top floors of the rugged Western Conference. "He deserves it," said his teammate, LaMarcus Aldridge, "but I don't know how he's going to do all that this weekend. That's a lot for anyone. I just know he won't be too tired to help us in the second half. He's an amazing player, probably the most underrated in the league, in my opinion."
Yes, there's one notion we can put to rest immediately, the image of Lillard wheezing and sucking oxygen next week when the NBA season resumes just because he multi-tasked his way through All-Star Weekend. "I mean, I'm young," Lillard said. "Are there really people out there who think I'll run out of breath?" No chance of that happening. He hit the ground running from his first day in the league and hasn't stopped. In a short time, the journey has led to the Rookie of the Year award, respect from peers and coaches, a beloved status in Portland and now, in New Orleans, a gathering of the game's greatest players.
Lillard was an intriguing choice by the Blazers in the 2012 draft, a relative unknown from Weber State who soared up the draft charts after positive results in the pre-draft camps. He didn't exactly see stiff competition at Weber State, and yet life in the NBA has been the exact opposite. Because the point guard spot is so stacked, and the West so rich and deep with contending teams, Lillard gets a tough test almost nightly. Then again, so do opposing point guards.
"There's no doubt that he's one of the better guards in the league, certainly among the wave of young point guards," Chris Paul said. "He's very tough to guard, because he can either pull up for the three-pointer or attack the rim. He's got that inside-outside game that all the great point guards must have."
What Lillard lacks so far is a polished playmaker's game; his two-year assists average (6.2) is rather mild, especially for a Blazers team that has few problems generating points. Yet he's a solid pick-and-roll player with Aldridge (which happens to be Portland's signature play), and for the most part, he manages to get his teammates involved. They seem to enjoy having him at point guard, so he must be doing something right as a distributor and leader.
The big plus is his scoring: 19 points per game last season, 20.7 now. Lillard will have stretches where his shot tends to fade, but he brings dangerous range (40 percent on threes) and a reliable pull-up jumper. He doesn't own the quickest first step in the league, but because his jumper must be respected, Lillard gets past his man with few problems. "I guess the best word to use when describing him is 'dependable,' because we know we're safe with the ball in his hands," said Aldridge. "He's going to do something positive with it."
Lillard went sixth in the 2012 draft partly because the draft was point-guard thin; only two (Lillard and Kendall Marshall) were taken among the first 24 picks. The Blazers were starved for leadership and coming off their disastrous experiment with a bloated Raymond Felton, so Lillard was the right savior at the right time. He and Aldridge clicked immediately, and it's no accident that both are All-Stars this year, based on both performance and the Blazers' sudden leap into contention.
Lillard is only 23 and evolving as a more complete point guard, and there's no other choice but to improve steadily, given what the West offers. Only Lillard, however, will do what hasn't been done before: stay completely busy during All-Star Weekend. "I was going to be in a couple of events anyway," he said, "and so I figured, why not do them all if I got the chance? Once I made the All-Star Game, well, I knew I'd be in the Rising Stars game. And my shooting percentage was good enough to get the call to be in the three-point contest. It kind of escalated from there. To be the first to be in all five, I knew that would be great."
What are his chances?
The three-point contest: "Some pretty stiff competition there. Steph Curry, Kevin Love, all of them. Everyone is capable of winning that one."
The dunk contest: "With the new format, I'm looking forward to dunking and being in a dunk-off. I think I can surprise some people."
The skills competition: "That's something I pride myself in having, the skills necessary to do what the point guard position demands."
The rookie-sophomore game: "There will be plenty of good, upcoming talent on the floor. I know that my class in particular is very solid, with Anthony Davis, myself, all the guys, really."
The All-Star Game: "That's the one I'm looking forward to doing the most. I came to All-Star Weekend last year for the Rising Stars, and I was just in awe of everything, all the great players, guys I grew up watching on TV as a kid. And now, to be in that company … I mean, I always had the confidence to think I could be here some day. But until you're actually here, you really have no idea how special it is."
What about going 5-for-5 for the weekend? Lillard had a good laugh at that. He has plenty of confidence, but maybe not that much. "Everything would have to go perfectly. You talk about just being in five events is unique. Winning all five is something that usually doesn't happen."
Lillard doesn't have to win all five, or even one of them. For a kid from Oakland, home of Gary Payton and Jason Kidd, to go from a lightly regarded recruit to Weber State to the NBA draft lottery and now to the All-Star Game -- make that all of All-Star Weekend -- Lillard has already won a title. "Someone said I'll be the hardest working man in New Orleans," he said. "I'll take it."