Normally, you would have to wait for the next issue of STACK magazine to see our current cover athlete, but we couldn't keep Damian Lillard under wraps any longer. The Portland Trail Blazers' All-Star point guard is one win away from the Western Conference Semifinals, thanks in large part to the work he does to make himself better and lead his teammates. Read the Spring 2014 STACK cover story below for a glimpse into Lillard's training.
The net snaps crisply as another corner three-pointer from Damian Lillard skims through. Lillard sees the ball drop through the hoop, turns and jogs back toward the foul line. He is visibly tired—the Trail Blazers have just wrapped up a full practice at their Portland practice facility—but his shots still sail with a perfect arc as he works through a few post-practice drills with assistant coach David Vanterpool.
Two Trail Blazers bench players, casually playing one-on-one at a nearby hoop, follow Lillard with their eyes as he prepares for another rep. "Dame!" The player with the ball calls out as Lillard approaches. "How should I do him?" motioning toward his teammate guarding him.
The player then imitates one of Lillard's signature moves, a stutter-step-to-pull-up shot. "Or what about this?" he asks, busting out a hesitation crossover.
Lillard slows, gives the question some thought and performs a stutter step of his own. The bench players laugh; then the one with the ball does his best Lillard impression and heaves the ball toward the hoop. Lillard gives the players a small smile and gets back to work, satisfied to have shared a little expertise.
"As a point guard, you are in charge of making sure the boat keeps floating," Lillard says later. "That means you have to keep everybody happy, because when guys aren't happy at this level, things can go south quickly."
Despite his short NBA career—he is in his second season (he was Rookie of the Year in 2012-13)—Lillard is already the Blazers' team leader. His teammates look to him for guidance and approval, and with good reason. At 23, Lillard is older than his years. He had to grow up fast.
Lillard was raised in Brookfield Village, a tough neighborhood in Oakland, Calif., where the rate of violent crime was three times the national average. He grew up around gangs, and has been held up at gunpoint.
"The biggest thing I dealt with growing up were the distractions," he says. "There were so many things I could've taken part in. There were gangs, and just that street life. I decided to stick with basketball."
Lillard's focus on the game took hold at a very young age. As a kid, he learned to play basketball at his grandmother's house. There was no hoop, so he shot at a tree branch grown in the shape of a rim. When the tree was cut down, someone nailed a milk crate to another tree, and Lillard kept practicing.
As a teenager, he bounced around high schools in the Bay Area. In his second year, he landed at St. Joseph Notre Dame, a basketball powerhouse that produced Jason Kidd. Lillard spent a forgettable season there before jetting over to Oakland High School, where he played well enough to catch the eye of scouts from Weber State University. Weber State had a competitive team in the Big Sky conference, but it was not known for churning out NBA players. That didn't bother Lillard. He set his sights high.
"I put a lot of pressure on myself," Lillard says. "It comes from within. I expect more out of myself than anybody else could ever expect out of me."
By the end of his sophomore year, Lillard had played his way onto the radar of NBA scouts, improving his scoring average from 11.5 points per game (PPG) as a freshman to 19.9. But during his junior season, he broke his foot in the ninth game, forcing him to sit out the rest of the year.
Rather than stress and obsess about the lost season, Lillard took it as an opportunity to get better. In a 2012 interview with The Salt Lake Tribune, he said, "I had a lot of time to think and watch a lot of film and lift a lot of weights. My mind automatically said, 'I am coming back, and I will get better.'"
So Lillard lifted weights and got stronger. He also dug into film, saw that his shot was flat and worked to develop the rainbow jumper that marks a great shooter. Each day, he aimed to make 200 high-arching shots over a net and into a rebounding machine—while seated. He took another 600 while standing. And when he returned the next season, Lillard shattered expectations.
During his fourth year of college, Lillard averaged 24.5 ppg—second highest in the nation—and became the first Weber State player ever named to an All-American team. His play propelled him all the way into the first round of the 2012 NBA Draft. He had locked up his selection by the Blazers with a pre-draft workout that has become legendary in the organization.
"I came here and I worked out by myself," Lillard recalls. "It was a challenge. All eyes were on me for a full hour. We did drills where I was running full court and shooting jump shots, then coming off pick and rolls and getting defended by two people. It was fun to be able to go out there and show them why I felt like I should be here."
The Blazers selected Lillard with the sixth overall pick. He repaid the team almost immediately, averaging 19 points and 6.5 assists per game and becoming only the fourth player in NBA history to win Rookie of the Year with a unanimous vote.
But despite Lillard's standout performance, last season was a bust for the Blazers. They lost 49 games and missed the playoffs.
Lillard entered year two with loftier goals.
"My rookie season I just wanted to have some type of impact," Lillard says. "This year has been more about watching film and being aware of tendencies of the guys that I'm playing against, recognizing situations where I can take the game over, knowing when one of my teammates is hot, and reading a guy's body language to see if I can do a better job of making them feel like a bigger part of the game."
By all indications, he has done a fantastic job. The Blazers locked themselves into a Western Conference playoff spot, and Lillard has helped teammates LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews put up career-high scoring numbers. Lillard made the All-Star team and he's averaging more than 20 PPG on his own.But you won't hear him boast.
"If I had to describe myself, I would say I'm a silent assassin," Lillard says. "I don't say a whole lot to my opponents. I say more to my teammates. I get my job done without having to say a bunch about it."
In the team practice facility, Lillard remains quiet and focused, tossing up corner threes with a determined look on his face that seems meant to hide the fatigue his body shows when he jogs back to the free throw line for another rep. He knows today's work is not over. In a few minutes, he'll head to the weight room for more training.
"When you stick with something, stay focused and get results, that's motivating," Lillard says. "I got to the NBA and decided I wanted to be someone. I got results from that. I'm on the right track."
Coach Vanterpool motions for his point guard to drift down to the corner one more time. Lillard runs toward the baseline, catches the ball, raises it over his head and flicks his wrist towards the hoop. The shot snaps off his hand, a picture-perfect arching lob sailing toward the hoop as if it were his first of the day.
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