- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Back in December, Basketball Prospectus and ESPN Insider scribe John Gasaway -- who made a guest appearance on our podcast this week, which I will now shamelessly plug -- noticed a rather remarkable trend: In 2011-12, some of the top scorers in the country on a sheer points per game average were also among the nation's leaders in offensive efficiency. As John wrote at the time, this is not how things are supposed to work:
Are Division I coaches more savvy than they used to be, or is it just a coincidence so many of the nation’s top scorers are actually highly efficient performers? Back in the day, scoring tons of points often required two things: a high proportion of missed shots, and a mistakenly permissive coach. (Draw up a chair, young people. When I started writing about college basketball, many in the media thought that because he scored a lot of points Bracey Wright was good at basketball. I’m serious.) But early in the 2011-12 season the guys atop the NCAA’s scoring leader board are unquestionably players who make their offenses better -- much better, in fact.
Oh, Bracey Wright. Halcyon days indeed.
Anyway, a month later, this trend still stands -- and remarkably so. Creighton's Doug McDermott, the nation's second-leading scorer (23.5 ppg) also possesses the nation's second-highest offensive rating (123.4) among players using more than 28 percent of their team's possessions. For a player to shoot and score as often as McDermott does, while also maintaining sterling efficiency numbers? That's crazy, right? (Right.)
And yet, somehow, McDermott isn't the paragon of this virtue. That would be Weber State's Damian Lillard. What Lillard is doing deserves special, even constant, consideration. The Wildcats guard leads the nation in points per game with 24.8. He also just so happens to lead the nation (among players in the plus-28 percent usage category) in offensive rating, where he is seven points ahead of McDermott at 130.7. It's hard to describe how amazing this is. It almost never happens. Usually, when you score a lot of points, you take a lot of shots, and a good portion of those shots fail to fall through the hoop. Not with Lillard. He's averaging 24.8 points per game because he shoots at a 46 percent clip from the field, a 45 percent clip from 3, and a 91 percent clip from the free throw line, where he finds himself nearly eight times per game. And the scoring is just the half of it: Lillard also leads his team in rebounds (5.8 per game), assists (3.7) and steals (1.3). If he played for a power conference team, he'd be the runaway favorite for national player of the year. There's a chicken-egg argument there, of course; maybe if Lillard played for a power-six school he wouldn't be playing the same level of competition, the numbers wouldn't be as good, etc. But however you want to slice it, the dude is having an insane college basketball season. Frankly, he's nearly been perfect.
Given all this, perhaps it's no surprise Lillard is garnering the attention of NBA scouts. But it is surprising -- and encouraging -- to hear that other NBA types have made his games appointment viewing, too. That was the case Thursday night, when the Lillard-led Weber State Wildcats scored another road win at Sacramento State. From the Sacramento Bee:
Representatives from at least nine NBA teams, including Kings president Geoff Petrie, came out to scout Lillard. Kings players DeMarcus Cousins and Jason Thompson, along with Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson -- a Fairfield native -- also were at the game.
Lillard, an Oakland High School graduate, said the attention does not faze him.
"I'm more comfortable with it now," he said. "It never bothered me, but I'm more used to it now because I know they're there. It doesn't bother me because I know what I need to do for my team."
Boogie Cousins in the building? If that's not an affirmation of your ability, Damian, I don't know what is.
In any case, the NBA clearly likes what it sees. According to ESPN Insider Chad Ford, Lillard is currently slotted as a potential mid-first-round pick in a loaded 2012 draft, albeit one that lacks "top-flight point guards," to use the scouting terminology. In his most recent analysis, Ford says Lillard has probably benefitted from the early success of former Cleveland State star Norris Cole, who fell to the Miami Heat thanks to concerns about his size and the lack of elite competition he faced in his career with the Vikings.
The NBA doesn't like to make the same mistake twice, apparently, and with Lillard, it shouldn't: If you don't want to draft a player that can do this much for your team -- or even, at the very least, put up these kinds of scoring numbers while maintaining such a high rate of efficiency -- you should immediately relinquish your position as an NBA general manager. Because you're bad at your job. And Lillard is going to be very good at his.