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NBA: Damian Lillard is trail blazing into the rookie limelight

After a history of NBA Draft blunders, the Portland Trailblazers selected unknown Damian Lillard in last year's first round and the 22-year-old has emerged as the top rookie in the league, writes Steve Dilbeck.

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, left, has emerged as the leading candidate for this season's Rookie of the Year. Steve Dykes / EPA
Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, left, has emerged as the leading candidate for this season's Rookie of the Year. Steve Dykes / EPA

Happy surprises are rare in the NBA.

For every player who emerges from relative obscurity to become a star there are a dozen "sure things" gone wrong.

And the exceptions, the undersold talents, quickly become objects of curiosity. Players like Damian Lillard.

It was almost as if the young Lillard made a point of remaining anonymous. He played at three high schools in Oakland, California, and moved on to a second-tier college programme at Weber State, in Utah, which in 50 years had never produced an NBA first-team player.

The Portland Trail Blazers, who are known for staggering blunders in the NBA draft (Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan; Greg Oden over Kevin Durant) spent the No 6 pick on an obscure point guard … who is poised to become the NBA rookie of the year.

Lillard likes to wear a T-shirt that reads: "Don't Doubt Me". Certainly, no one does now, after 58 games, in which he has averaged 18.5 points and 6.4 assists.

Perhaps a factor in his rise lies in the intangibles often attached to him: toughness and confidence.

"I can't really compare him to any other rookies that I've had," said Terry Stotts, the Blazers coach. "He's playing at a very high level. He's been very consistent. And you wouldn't really know that he's a rookie by the way he plays or by the way he handles himself, and that's very unusual. And I haven't seen that very often in my time in the NBA."

With the Blazers' dubious draft history, it was understandable that many in Portland doubted Lillard would make a difference. Now he is a growing into a folk hero, a young star to build around. Dime, a magazine dedicated to the NBA, called him the most exciting rookie since LeBron James. At the recent NBA All-Star game, Lillard won the skills contest.

"He's a tough player," said the Utah Jazz forward Paul Millsap. "His toughness has made him successful and that's what gotten him this far. That, and his confidence. He does well for that team. He fits that team with the people around him."

Lillard, 22, is expected to be the runaway winner for the rookie award, but he seems unaffected by his quick journey from comparative unknown to rising star.

"When you keep the same circle of people around you, you tend to do the same things," he said. "My family and the friends around me, they want the best for me, so they encourage me to do what I've always done. I mean, I do the same stuff I always have. I haven't changed."

The perceptions of him, however, have. "I think he's a wonderful player," said Gregg Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs coach. "His skills are obvious, but I like his demeanour as much as I like his skills."

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