Damian Lillard made the Portland Trail Blazers proud recently when he participated in a Team USA minicamp. He looked like a natural fit alongside some of the game’s top up-and-coming stars, and it looks as if he has a future when it comes to international competition.
The 22-year-old is vying for a spot on the 2014 FIBA roster. The team will be competing for a World Cup Championship in Spain, and while the 2016 Olympics are also worth noting, the focus right now is on next summer.
The roster hasn’t been set, as the brain trusts behind the operation want to see what each player brings to the table during the first half of the 2013-14 NBA season. That said, we learned a lot about the competition, and there’s a few things Blazers fans can take away from what they saw in Las Vegas.
Rip City Has a True Superstar
Damian Lillard has been looked at as a superstar since Game 1 with the Trail Blazers. He recorded a historic 23 points and 11 assists in his first-ever game as a pro, and his poise and maturity made it easy to forget he was just a rookie.
Now, playing alongside talent you just can’t find on a single NBA roster, he still looks like a star ready to shine in today’s game.
At this stage in the process, LaMarcus Aldridge is widely considered the Blazers’ best player. He’s a dominant offensive force who can challenge defenders all over the floor, but the fact is that he’s not looked at as a superstar in a number of NBA circles. His game doesn’t scream flash, and whether it’s fair or not, that’s why he’s often looked over when it comes to the game’s best players.
Lillard, however, plays with a style and a swag that lets you know he’s ready to take over at any time. Portland hasn’t had that since Brandon Roy retired, and while Rip City has known for a while what Lillard has to offer, it’s good to see the rest of the country recognizing it on a floor full of talent.
Defense, Defense, Defense
The No. 1 knock on Lillard’s game during his inaugural season was his defense. Despite having quick hands and solid lateral movement, he had trouble staying in front of opponents in half-court sets.
Now, having played with All-Star-caliber talent in Las Vegas, it’s clear that he’s putting forth the effort to better himself on that end of the floor.
— Trail Blazers (@pdxtrailblazers) July 24, 2013
According to Casey Holdahl of Trailblazers.com, the young point guard showed “the capability to be a much better defender than he was during his rookie season.” Holdahl points out hard closeouts and ball-denying defense as two areas where improvement was visible.
The caveat here is that the sample size is small. A few days of practice and an exhibition competition only show so much during the offseason, but any sign is a good sign when it comes to Lillard taking his game to the next level.
The Competition Will Be Steep
If there’s anything going against Lillard’s chances of making the roster, it’s that the NBA is a point-guard dominated league. The 2016 Olympic team is going to comprise superstars across the board, and players such as Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook will make it difficult for the Trail Blazers’ star to find a spot.
When it comes to the 2014 FIBA competition, Lillard has a legitimate shot of making it. He clearly knows how to put the ball in the bucket, which makes him flexible enough to occasionally play 2-guard, but his ability to lead a team and distribute accordingly will likely be a determining factor.
Other young point guards such as John Wall, Jrue Holiday and Mike Conley will certainly keep Lillard on his toes, but look for the former Weber State product to continue playing with a chip on his shoulder as his basketball career progresses.
Lillard Belongs on Team USA
Whether Lillard makes the roster right away or not should have little influence on his overall Team USA future. Following a Team USA practice session, Lillard told CSNNW’s Chris Haynes, “I definitely belong here.”
Truer words weren’t spoken during the minicamp in Las Vegas, as Lillard proved that he certainly has the ability to play at a high level alongside incredible competition.
It’s true that the Las Vegas showcase was mostly dominated by fellow point guard Kyrie Irving and fellow sophomore Anthony Davis, but Lillard was hardly a step behind when it came to his overall appearance. He looked good, but more importantly, he looked comfortable.
Whether it be 2014, 2016 or somewhere further down the road, expect to see Lillard in red, white and blue again. He’s too good to not make an appearance, and if the committee is looking for the best players available, they’d be remiss not to take a chance on the young floor general from the Pacific Northwest.