The Case for Drafting Damian Lillard With the Raptors' Eighth Pick - Part I

Lillard might not be a pass-first point guard, but that doesn't mean he can't effectively run a team at the next level...

So Bryan Colangelo doesn't expect Damian Lillard to be around when the Toronto Raptors make their pick. But if he is, here's why the Dinos should draft him.

Let me introduce you to Damian Lillard, the Most Known Unknown in this year's NBA draft, to take a page out of the book of the Three Six Mafia.

He's a 6-3 guard from Oakland California, who enters the NBA Draft as a senior out of Weber State, a school in Ogden Utah about 30 minutes from Salt Lake City.

His name has been bandied about draft circles for a few seasons now, but it was this past campaign that really put him on the NBA radar. He was Third Team All-American, Big Sky MVP, and posted the highest PER in the NCAA outside of the consensus number one overall draft pick, Anthony Davis.

Not too bad.

Now, he looks like a lock to be a top 10 pick in the draft, and the word is that the Raptors have him firmly in their sights as one of their top options with the eighth overall pick.

So is this the right call? Should Toronto use a lottery pick on a player that was hardly a blue chip draft option until recent months?

I'm saying yes.

However there are lots of folks in Raptorland who don't feel the same way, and have given a number or reasons as to why they think Lillard is a poor choice. In the first of two posts on the topic, we'll take a look at each objection in turn, break it down, and attempt to determine if indeed, it's a valid reason for passing on the man from Weber State.

1) Lillard is not a real point guard.

We'll start with this one, probably the biggest objection out there. Lillard averaged under four assists per game at Weber State so immediately this has been a red flag for many.

However as I noted in the comments section a few times already, assists are a terrible predictor of PG ability at the next level. Rajon Rondo averaged 4.2 assists during his time at Kentucky and Steve Nash, one of the greatest floor generals of all time? He barely topped that mark averaging 4.5 assists over his four years at Santa Clara.

No one would argue that those two players aren't in the uber-elite class of pass-first PG's, so to say that Lillard isn't a true point because of middling assist stats is simply a flawed argument. Situations, talent around said player, all of these things factor into a stat like that.

A much better indicator is assists per 40 minutes, a statistic that has the highest correlation of all stats regarding translation from college to the NBA. Here, Lillard's mark of 4.6 isn't great, but as you can see in the tables below, it puts him in a similar range as prospects like Russell Westbrook, who simply weren't asked to be pass-first guys in college, but who have made a very successful transition to running an NBA club.

Another stat to look at is Lillard's PPR or, Pure Point Rating, a measure developed by John Hollinger designed to measure a player's PG aptitudes. His mark of 0.95 isn't blowing anyone away (Kendall Marshall's mark was 11 by comparison, with the next closest college player last year being Scott Machado at 9.21 and then things falling off dramatically from there.) But it blows away John Wall's mark of 0.78 and compares favourably to current NBA PG's like Jrue Holiday (1.07), Russell Westbrook (1.08) and isn't that far off from Derrick Rose's mark as Memphis floor general (1.52.)

More importantly in my books, this is a player who maximizes possessions even if, as the stats show, he isn't the greatest facilitator to come out of college. His turnover per possession mark of 0.12 was a good chunk lower than any of the players we stacked him up against (see tables below) with the exception of Dion Waiters (more on that in another post) and as such, he posted a solid assist to turnover rate considering his lack of dimes.

So to answer our first objection I would say that statistically, Lillard is a true point guard. His "PG" stats measure up favourably to some of the NBA's elite, and at Weber State he was needed to be the go-to guy on offence, not a creator for a bevy of talented teammates like Kendall Marshall.

From a piece by Brett Hein, who watched Lillard for the bulk of his career:

Some have stated he (Lillard) isn't a "true point guard" because he scores a lot. In other words, people think because he can score he "looks for his own shot first." I can say that this is false as, for anecdotal factors, I watched Lillard play no less than 20 times this season. He isn't a prolific passer and has room to grow, but he was anything but shoot-first. It sounds crazy to say about someone who scored 25 ppg in college, but there were times watching him when I thought he could shoot more and it wouldn't seem pressing. Many of his points came in sets designed to get him open off-the-ball (meaning an NBA team could use him as a 2-guard in spurts)

That being said, if the Raptors are looking for someone who can come in and run the show right away, I'm not expecting the smoothest transition ever. He's not Marshall or Machado, the draft's two elite pass-first guys, so it depends what the club wants out of this pick. With Jose Calderon currently in tow however, I can't think of a more exciting situation than to bring Lillard off the pine behind him, both as a change of pace guy, and potential mentoree. I just don't think there's a more preferable pick as a 1-2 option in the draft.

In fact before moving onto our next point of contention, let's actually look at how Lillard stacks up overall against this draft's other point guards and pseudo point guards.

As can be seen from Table 1 below, Lillard is clearly the top overall statistical performer.

He may not have the passing skills of a Marshall (few do though in terms of historical NCAA compares) or even Machado, but taking everything else into account, especially his efficiency marks and physical traits, he looks to me like the clear-cut top upside option at this position in the draft. What's particularly enticing to me is his ability to get to the rim as well as hit the long-range shot. These are two skills the Raptors desperately need and yet are incredibly rare to find coupled in most prospects. Historically a player might be deadly from downtown, but would not be great at getting to the rim, and vice versa. Yet not only does Lillard take a good chunk of 3's, but he makes them at a great clip AND still FTA per POS mark than anyone in the class outside Jared Cunningham!

These are all factors that explain his ridiculous PER mark, as well as rock solid true shooting and effective field goal percentages, numbers that dwarf most of the rest of his class:

Table 1 - Lillard vs. Current Draft Class:

Damian Lillard

Kendall Marshall

Scott Machado

Jared Cunningham

Tyshawn Taylor

Dion Waiters

Height

6-3

6-4

6-2

6-5

6-4

6-4

Weight

189

198

206

188

177

221

Vertical

39.5

37

33.5

NA

36.5

NA

Wing

6-8

6-6

6-3

6-7

6-7

6-7

Agility

11.15

12.03

12

NA

11.48

NA

Ass/40

4.6

11.8

11.2

3.2

5.7

4.1

Oreb/40

0.6

0.2

1

1.2

0.2

0.8

FGA

15.5

6.3

9.5

12.2

12.2

9.6

3PTA/FGA

0.46

0.35

0.32

0.34

0.32

0.32

Stl/40

1.7

1.4

1.8

2.9

1.6

3

FT%

89%

70%

81%

74%

69%

73%

PF/40

2.2

1.9

2.9

2.8

2.4

3.1

PTS/POS

1.27

0.92

1.05

1.12

1.04

1.2

FGA/POS

0.8

0.71

0.73

0.76

0.76

0.92

FTA/POS

0.42

0.25

0.29

0.47

0.32

0.3

TO/POS

0.12

0.32

0.25

0.18

0.22

0.12

Ass/TO

1.73

3.48

3.03

0.99

1.35

1.92

TS%

64%

56%

61%

57%

57%

57%

eFG%

56%

53%

56%

51%

54%

53%

PER

33.8

17.1

23.3

21.8

19.5

26.1

WS/40

12

7.2

10.5

6.8

4.2

7.7

2) Lillard is too similar to Jerryd Bayless:

Forget Bayless, the one player who I've been having fits about in terms of an NBA compare is Jonny Flyyn. I was a huge Flynn backer the year he was drafted and was sure he would be a very effective player in the NBA. That hasn't been the case, and the real reason I started this analysis was to see just how Lillard matched up with the former Syracuse stud.

But for Raptors' fans, it's Bayless that's the greater concern considering the club is trying to do decide what to do with the former Arizona lead guard.

So in table two below, I lined Lillard up against both Flynn and Bayless, as well as some of the league's top NBA point guards of a similar athletic and score-first ilk:

Table 2: Lillard vs. Former Top NBA PG Prospects:

Damian Lillard

Jonny Flynn

Jerryd Bayless

Russell Westbrook

Rajon Rondo

Derrick Rose

Height

6-3

6-1

6-3

6-4

6-1

6-5

Weight

189

196

204

192

175

196

Vertical

39.5

40

38

36.5

NA

40

Wing

6-8

6-4

6-4

6-8

6-9

6-8

Agility

11.15

10.86

11.26

10.98

NA

11.69

Ass/40

4.6

7.2

4.5

5.1

6.3

6.5

Oreb/40

0.6

0.6

0.5

1.9

1.4

1.8

FGA

15.5

12.5

12.6

10

9

10.9

3PTA/FGA

0.46

0.3

0.38

0.2

0.22

0.24

Stl/40

1.7

1.5

1.1

2

2.6

1.6

FT%

89%

79%

84%

71%

57%

71%

PF/40

2.2

1.6

2.5

2.8

2.7

2.3

PTS/POS

1.27

1.07

1.19

1.03

1

1.07

FGA/POS

0.8

0.77

0.76

0.81

0.81

0.78

FTA/POS

0.42

0.37

0.45

0.31

0.31

0.37

TO/POS

0.12

0.21

0.18

0.2

0.21

0.19

Ass/TO

1.73

1.97

1.36

1.74

2.11

1.77

TS%

64%

57%

61%

54%

53%

56%

eFG%

56%

51%

54%

50%

51%

52%

PER

33.8

20.4

23.7

19.4

22.1

24.1

WS/40

12

5.8

5.7

5.8

10.1

8.5

Immediately I began to breathe a sigh of relief looking at Lillard versus Flynn. There are a few similarities there for sure, but Lillard has superior physical traits, and is simply the much more efficient player, something that's kept Flynn from seeing much NBA court time. Not only is Flynn not a pass-first PG, but he's not a good enough scoring one either, again, probably explaining a good chunk of his NBA malaise.

But what about Bayless?

The funny thing is, while the two do look to be very similar in terms of these metrics, Lillard appears to be an upgrade, a more efficient and aggressive Bayless 2.0 if you will. There's no question in my mind that the two wouldn't be able to co-exist, but I prefer Lillard's upside to that of Bayless. I like Bayless, but the reality is that we've only seen what he can do in spurts, and as a starter. If the club is going to shell out big bucks (Bayless' qualifying offer is around $4.1M and will go up from there) for a PG, I'd prefer they were doing so to get a sure thing in terms of a future floor general. In the absence of that, why not run with Jose, use that money to address another need, and groom Lillard as a back-up?

Maybe it's because of his age and lack of upside right?

That's something we'll address in part II...

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