|ESPN.com: NBA All-Star 2014||[Print without images]|
NEW ORLEANS -- Damian Lillard insists the feeling still hits him at times in quiet moments on the road when he's alone in his hotel room in random NBA cities.
It doesn't matter if he just dropped a career-high 41 points in Sacramento or delivered game-winning daggers in consecutive games at Detroit and Cleveland. There are still moments when the Portland Trail Blazers' second-year guard has to remind himself that he has, indeed, made it.
Not only has Lillard reached his dream of making the NBA, he has emerged as one of its brightest stars.
"I still do have them," Lillard told ESPN.com during a phone interview of the inevitable pinch-yourself stages he experiences. "It's kind of surreal because everything happened so fast. You go into one of those moments where you start to look around and feel that you appreciate everything. You appreciate your story more because you went through all of those things to get to where you are."
Lillard's latest trek takes him to New Orleans, where the once-overlooked prep prospect is now a can't-miss All-Star just 135 games into his NBA career. And by can't-miss, Lillard is set to be as ubiquitous this weekend in the Crescent City as Hurricane cocktails and Mardi Gras beads.
|Damian Lillard is no stranger to All-Star festivities, but the NBA hasn't seen anything like what he has planned for New Orleans.|
As the first player in All-Star Weekend history to participate in five marquee events, Lillard will start off in Friday's Rising Stars game that features rookies and second-year players, then compete in three events Saturday -- the Skills Challenge, 3-point shootout and dunk contest -- before wrapping up his weekend as a Western Conference reserve in Sunday's marquee All-Star Game.
Lillard's emergence comes at a time when the league is undergoing a makeover of sorts. With superstars such as Kobe Bryant injured and former mainstays Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan now past their All-Star worthy years, Lillard represents one of the fresh young faces amid a transition period that will also see Adam Silver preside over his first All-Star Game as commissioner after replacing David Stern earlier this month.
On the court, change will be most evident at the guard spots, where Lillard, Golden State's Stephen Curry, Washington's John Wall and Toronto's DeMar DeRozan are four of the six players who are making their All-Star Game debuts on Sunday. Another sign that the showcase game is young this year is that nine total players on the East and West rosters were selected within the past five drafts.
Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel said injuries to Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo obviously created openings for some rising talents who might not have otherwise been selected as reserves by league coaches this season. But Vogel also suggested that players such as Lillard and Wall have also made strong enough cases this season to warrant selection regardless of some injuries.
"Not to put a negative spin on it, but some guys who are hurt probably would have been there, which would have made for some real tough calls," said Vogel, who will coach the Eastern Conference team on Sunday. "But these younger guys have emerged as top guys, and they have a chance to draw more attention to what they've done. It's about putting it together on both ends, not just doing what it takes individually. Lift your team up. That's what these guys have done. They've taken the next step; so have their teams."
That has especially been the case for Lillard, whose Blazers entered the All-Star break with a 36-17 record, having already eclipsed their 33 victories from all of last season. Lillard, last season's NBA Rookie of the Year, leads Portland in assists (5.7) and is second in scoring (20.7) this season. The Blazers' 31-10 mark represented the best start in franchise history through the midway point of the season.
Lillard said the biggest difference in his game from last season to now is his focus on the small things, the nuances of running a winning team and keeping everyone engaged. His effectiveness in tandem with fellow All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge led to them becoming the first teammates this season each reach 1,000 points. Last month, Lillard also joined Curry and LeBron James as the first three players this season to reach at least 700 points, 200 assists and 100 rebounds.
The accolades don't end there. Lillard also has made more 3-pointers through his first two seasons than anyone in league history, and the 26 points he scored in the fourth quarter in a Jan. 7 win at Sacramento also set a franchise record for the most points in any quarter.
"Last year, I was just out there playing, trying to find a way to get something done," Lillard said. "This year, I'm more aware of what I need to be out there doing as far as making sure guys stay involved, watching film and dealing with time and situations of the game, what plays I can run, trying to balance out when I can attack and know the situation."
The seasoning process has been similar for Wall, whose Wizards are on pace to make the playoffs for the first time in his four seasons. Consecutive losses in the final seconds this week to Memphis and Houston knocked the Wizards two games below the .500 mark. But Wall hit the break coming off one his best games of the season when he had 19 points and 14 assists without a turnover in Wednesday's loss.
Achieving All-Star status was especially rewarding for Wall, who missed 33 games last season to recover from knee injury. During his absence, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft essentially became a forgotten man during the league's renaissance at the point guard spot. Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Rose and Westbrook had already established themselves before Wall arrived. And Curry, Lillard and Kyrie Irving quickly stepped to the forefront last season as Wall was in his recovery process.
Now ranked among the league's top 20 scorers (19.8) and top five in assists (8.5) and steals (2.0), Wall has established himself as one of the NBA's premier point guards. He has led the Wizards to victories by double-digit margins over the Heat, Thunder and Blazers this season.
Trying to suggest to Wall that there should be an asterisks next to his listing as an All-Star because of someone else's injury is like trying to beat him in a foot race to the rim as he drives in transition.
"Everybody says that if those guys [Rose, Westbrook, Rondo] were playing, we wouldn't be," Wall said as he prepared for his weekend in New Orleans. "But the way I'm playing and how confident I am in myself and my teammates, I still feel like I would be an All-Star anyway. And that's why I use that as motivation and keep that going forward. That's just more of the things I use as motivation to prove that I can be as good as anyone in this league and that I belong in this league, at this level."
Unlike Lillard and Wall, Curry didn't have to sweat out the coaches' selection process to round out the rosters. Instead, he was the product of one of the biggest ballot spikes in All-Star history when fans voted him a West starter to seal his first appearance in the Sunday game.
Last year, Curry received 169,083 votes and was considered one of the biggest snubs when coaches didn't pick him as a reserve. This season, the 1,047,281 fan votes he received were second to only Kevin Durant among the West starters. Curry's profile was boosted by Golden State's run to the second round of the playoffs last season and his prolific shooting this season as the league's fifth-leading scorer (24.6).
Much like Lillard and Wall, Curry plans to make the most of his weekend in New Orleans. In addition to Sunday's game, Curry will also compete in the 3-point shootout on Saturday and also play alongside his father, former NBA sharpshooter Dell Curry, in the Shooting Stars competition.
Lillard doesn't shy away from the fact that he appreciates the extra exposure this weekend will bring. When asked why he agreed to stack his itinerary from Friday to Sunday in New Orleans, he initially responded with two simple words.
"The fact that I have the chance to do every event -- no one has ever done it before, so I feel like I can test it," Lillard explained. "It's a way to recognize what my team has done and for people to see me. The main thing will be that I enjoy stuff like this, being a part of things like this."
Six years ago, Lillard only dreamed of weekends like this back in Oakland. Back when he was an overlooked prep prospect who transferred three times in high school. Back when low-profile Weber State was one of the few colleges that offered him a scholarship.
This weekend, Lillard's story will be told on a global scale alongside the current greats in the game. People will get to know the player who wears zero on his jersey to represent each step of his journey, from his roots in Oakland, Calif., to his college town of Ogden, Utah, to his NBA home state of Oregon.
And to New Orleans as a new All-Star.
"Everything has happened so fast," Lillard said. "But whenever I'm on the court, I feel like I'm making a statement and a case that I belong, and that there's a reason why I was chosen to make the All-Star game. I feel like I belong."