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SALT LAKE CITY — Former Weber State star Damian Lillard is the leading candidate for NBA rookie of the year.
He is averaging 18.3 points and 6.5 assists which lead all NBA rookies. He's scored 20 or more points in 21 games this season. He was named NBA rookie of the month in November and December and will likely earn the award for the month of January.
Despite all that success he is still driven now as much as he was at Weber State to prove doubters wrong.
"People are probably waiting for me to fail at something because it's been a smooth transition," he says about his rookie success in the NBA. "I know people are waiting to say ‘Oh he hit the rookie wall' or ‘you know he was just playing out of his mind' so I'm just trying to be consistent and prove to people that I belong here. The level I'm playing at is the level I'm going to play at."
His level of play has turned heads and earned him respect around the league but he isn't content with his early success in the NBA.
"It's been great but I know that it's a long season. I don't want to have a one year career so it's about progress, constant improvement. So I've just tried to stay in the moment and not drown myself in what's been happening. I just want to keep getting better."
Damian has had plenty of help along the way. He credits Weber State head coach Randy Rahe and his staff for helping him develop each year both on and off the court.
He can be special. There is really no limit to what he can do as a basketball player on the floor. It's really up to him to take his game to whatever level he wants to take it to. I told him six or seven years from now I'll be bringing my son to the game and hopefully watch an All-Star.
He has also received guidance from another Utah college star from a small school. He became friends with Ronnie Price, a Utah Valley product, during Ronnie's time with the Utah Jazz.
"We can relate," Price says. "We have a lot of similarities with playing college basketball here (in Utah). I always tease him telling him my team is better than his."
Price signed with the Portland Trail Blazers as a free agent during the offseason. Having Price as a teammate has been an invaluable tool for Lillard.
"He's been kind of a mentor to me since my junior year (of college) when I broke my foot," Damian says. "He's just talked me through the whole rundown of college to the NBA How to take care of my body better how to work myself and not overwork myself . It's kind of ironic that we ended up teammates."
Price had a chance to watch Lillard play at Weber State and became a fan of his game. He's not surprised that Lillard has made a smooth and successful transition to the NBA.
"I think because his demeanor, his maturity," Price credits as the reason for his early success. "The fact that being an Oakland kid and then having the chance to get out of that element and come to Utah play college basketball, that's important. I think that he's had some great mentors around him and he's handled his situation very well. You can't say that about many rookies that come into the league."
Lillard has shown his star potential during the first half of the season and Price believes it's just the beginning for Damian.
"He can be special man," Price says about his potential. "There is really no limit to what he can do as a basketball player on the floor. It's really up to him to take his game to whatever level he wants to take it to. I told him six or seven years from now I'll be bringing my son to the game and hopefully watch an All-Star."
When Lillard declared for the NBA draft he said during his announcement that some of his goals were to be rookie of the year and become an All-Star. He's well on his way and there is a very good chance that his dream of being named rookie of the year in the NBA will soon become reality. But despite all the success he remains focused on the success of his team.
"It would mean a lot but that's not my primary focus. I'm trying to help the team win games and hopefully get a playoff berth. As long as we win games that means I'm playing well and I think that will lead to individual things."
He continues to be the same humble player he was at Weber State, still carrying that chip on his shoulder that has made him the player he is today.
"You always want to prove them wrong."