“Sometimes in timeouts when we go to the bench I just sit there and I’ll close my eyes,” Damian Lillard said.
With his eyes closed, he does breathing techniques taught to him by strength and conditioning coach Anthony Eggleton of Advanced Sports Training Institute (ASTI). The two met when Lillard was in eighth grade through his AAU coach, Raymond Young of the Oakland Rebels.
“It definitely helps me just calm myself,” said the Portland Trail Blazers’ riveting rookie, sounding much wiser than his 22 years. “It helps me relax and stay in the moment and keep my focus.”
Much has been made of Lillard’s temperament. Poised. Unflappable. Even-keeled. Use whatever word you want. What separates him from other rookies is not just the gaudy numbers — 18.4 points and 6.4 assists per game, both easily best in his class — but the manner in which he plays the point, calmly directing older teammates and making big plays in big moments. It doesn’t hurt that he’s been putting in work on the mental side all along.
“I’ll do the breathing techniques and I’ll center myself,” Lillard said. “Maybe two or three timeouts a game I’ll do it and get back on the court just to keep myself where I need to be.”
When it came time to get ready for the draft process this past summer, Lillard favored familiar faces. Eggleton, his partner Aalim Moor II and their assistants at ASTI put him through intense workouts designed to increase his lateral quickness, explosiveness and leaping ability. No matter what Eggleton asked of him, Lillard never said he was too tired to continue. “That was a shock to me,” said Eggleton. “I’ve trained a lot of athletes. I’ve trained world-class triathletes, I’ve seen them fatigued. But Damian, never.”
“He helped me a lot,” Lillard said of Eggleton. His performance at the NBA Draft Combine and the individual team workouts vaulted him into the sixth slot in the draft.
“When he went to the workouts that people saw, they were amazed about the workouts and why he still had energy at the end,” said Eggleton. “When he and I [were training], when he was getting tired I’d tell him to focus on this point between [his] eyes, just breathe and concentrate, and that will take over and have you do just about anything. And that’s why they were amazed when Dame got the dunk at the end after that vicious workout. And he and I looked at each other and laughed and he says, ‘That stuff, it works.’”
“A lot of that stuff is good for when you’re tired and you’re in a tough spot,” Lillard said. “It helps you mentally even before you start playing the game, getting yourself centered and getting focused. That stuff really helped me this summer, going into one of the tougher times and bigger times in my life with the draft. It really helped me.”
Fellow Blazer point guard Ronnie Price connected with Lillard through mutual friends when the former played for the Utah Jazz and the latter played for nearby Weber State University. They are now teammates with the Portland Trail Blazers, but the “super-talented” Lillard, according to Price, left first impressions long before.
“I thought that if he wouldn’t have gotten hurt with his foot injury in his junior year, that would have been a big breakout season for him and he probably would’ve come out after that year,” said Price. “But everything happens for a reason.”
It was just nine games into the season when Lillard broke his foot, the first serious injury of his life. How the then-20-year-old used his time after the injury is well-documented — from ball-handling and shooting drills in a chair and hitting the weight room to obsessively studying tape and applying himself academically, Lillard matured as a college student and a student of the game. But it didn’t happen overnight.
Chris Gold, then Weber State’s Director of Basketball Operations, saw a different Damian than he was used to. On road trips and around his teammates, Lillard was normally found laughing and telling stories, doing spot-on impersonations of players and coaches and making people around him crack up. But that lighthearted Lillard, the one with the personality that runs contrary to his determined demeanor on the floor, was lost for a little while. “He was just miserable,” Gold, now an assistant coach at Snow College, said. “He didn’t know what to do.”
“It took about a month or two for him to realize this is the time for him to improve and to come back and, once he figured that part out, you could see him grow on and off the court.”
“I was down,” said Lillard. “I was worried about my future and worried about what was next for me. And what if I was never the same after I broke my foot?”
Lillard wasn’t the same when he returned — he was far better. Smarter, stronger and sporting a higher release on his jumper, his numbers skyrocketed as a senior. He averaged 24.5 points, five rebounds and four assists per game on 47 percent shooting, 41 percent from behind the 3-point line.
None of this surprised Gold. Whether it was Lillard’s own plays or the 15-minute reel of Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul that Gold gave him, they’d watch the video together and then the injured perfectionist would take it home and study it repeatedly.
Gold called Lillard the hardest-working player he’d ever seen. “Everything you’d see, late nights in the gym, sometimes getting two workouts in, how hard he’d go in practice. He’d work out in the morning, a full-blown 45-minute workout,” said Gold. “[Assistant coach] Phil [Beckner] was just pushing him, pushing him, pushing him, and [he would] come back an hour or two later where most guys are probably just dead. And he would just practice harder than anybody else for another 2-3 hours … He was so fine-tuned from working on every detail of his game. He didn’t like having any weaknesses, so he’d attack every single thing he possibly could.”
That work ethic wasn’t anything new. “From the first time I saw the kid he just worked really hard and was really focused,” said Eggleton. “And it kind of stood out from the other eighth graders. He just seemed to be more mature than them and more serious, even at that time.”
Lillard has excelled early despite dealing with quicker, stronger defenders and team schemes geared toward slowing him down. If he’s overwhelmed by the travel, the media or the schedule, he hasn’t shown it. He’s exceeded expectations, which seems ludicrous when you consider fans anointing him the Trail Blazers’ savior and general manager Neil Olshey referring to him as their “franchise point guard” the night he was drafted.
“It’s tough,” Price said of Lillard’s burden the night he was named Western Conference Rookie of the Month for the second time. “Especially when all eyes are on you and you’re such a good player, and having such a high demand to perform right away. And then everyone expecting, wondering if he is as good as Portland thought as far as drafting him when they did. And a lot of people are waiting on you to fail. I think that he’s very mature. I think his confidence level takes care of him.”
“I gotta give a lot of credit to my Weber State coaches and people around campus because they never treated me like I was a big deal or anything,” said Lillard. “Not that they didn’t show me respect, but they never made it seem like I was doing anything out of the ordinary. They kept pushing me, so all I know is to keep pushing for more and by getting all of this attention now, I was getting this attention while I was in college and they still yelled at me in practice, they still yelled at me if I didn’t get a homework assignment done and just from them not saying, ‘Oh, he’s going to be an NBA player, we can cut him some slack’ — they never cut me slack. So now that all the attention is here at this level and I got my coaches here doing the same thing: ‘You can be good, but you need to work on this, you need to watch film and see things’ and having that group of people that keeps pushing you and they see you getting a lot better, it helps a lot.”
Both Eggleton and Young said they were comfortable being firm with Lillard from the beginning because his parents were firm, too.
“That’s the way I like to be handled because I was taught that people that push you and people that want you to keep getting better, they have your best interests at heart,” said Lillard. “I took that in. I feel like when you have people around you that aren’t afraid to step to you and tell you what you probably don’t always want to hear, that’s when you can be most successful. And my whole life, I’ve had those people and I’ve been successful making my dream come true.”
Part of making his dream come true is getting the recognition that eluded him until recently. Lillard has made repeated reference to having a chip on his shoulder, as he didn’t play much in his two years at St. Joseph’s High, wasn’t heavily recruited out of Oakland High and then was doubted for playing against weaker college competition. Now that he’s gone from small gyms to the Big Sky to the big stage, he’s hearing high praise from the highest of places. Chris Paul called him Portland’s “prized possession”. Kobe Bryant said he thinks the world of him.
“In my head, it means I gotta keep working because my family, they expect a lot from me and I want to be that,” Lillard said. “So I keep working to become what people expect from me. And to hear two guys that are at the top of our league, future Hall of Famers, it makes me want to work and eventually be what they’re saying I’m capable of being.”
To get where he wants to go, Lillard will need to develop on defense. This is obvious for him and unsurprising for any rookie point guard, even with Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts saying he has made strides with his ability to defend in transition and in pick and roll situations. “I’m nowhere near where I want to be defensively,” Lillard said. “I get a lot of credit for what I do offensively, but I’ve got a long way to go defensively. I have gotten better since the beginning of the season but I want to be a lot better than I am now.”
Price, a fellow point guard, already sees significant improvement in Lillard on that end but explained that it took him about four years to fully understand what it means to be a good defender at the NBA level. The thing that commands confidence about Lillard, though, is his attitude. He’s always positive, never satisfied and totally under control — of his words, of his mental state and, usually, of the game in which he’s playing. As he spoils his supporters with success, he’s shown nothing to suggest he can’t keep flying higher.
“There’s no ceilings,” said Price. “The sky is the limit for him. He can control however good he wants to be. It’s in his hands. What I mean by that is you can look at Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, you know, or you can look at Chris Paul and [Rajon] Rondo. The sky’s the limit, man. It’s up to him.”