One of the biggest concerns about Lillard is the lack of top competition he's faced during his college career.
We brought you the first part this AM, now onto the second...
Again, if you missed the first part of this discussion this morning, you can find it here, so let's launch right into the next portion of this analysis.
3) Damian Lillard is too old to improve substantially.
Damian Lillard will be 22 years old next month. By most standards he's a baby but for the NBA draft, that definitely lands him on the older side of the scale.
So I understand the concern.
Statistically speaking, NBA players peak around 25-26, so having a 22-year old rookie doesn't give much time for "upside."
However there are plenty of examples of older draftees who have shown rapid improvement in their first few seasons. Joakim Noah, Arron Afflalo, Roy Hibbert, Ty Lawson and George Hill (his Draftexpress compare) all were on the older side of the draft scale.
As well, some players have simply been good from day one, despite being a similar age when drafted as Lillard. Examples would include Danny Granger, David West, David Lee and Brandon Roy. Folks may not recall, but there were even some of the same concerns about Dwyane Wade when he was drafted at the ancient age of 21 and a half.
So would you prefer a very good player who can contribute immediately to your club? Or a younger one with higher upside, but who may not ever reach his potential?
That's one of the dilemmas NBA GM's go through each year and something the Raps likely face at the moment. By all accounts it sounds like Bryan Colangelo does not want another project, so that bodes well for drafting someone like Lillard.
I liken the situation a bit to Shane Battier. Battier was 22 when he was drafted sixth overall by the Memphis Grizzlies, and at face value, you'd hardly say that was a home run pick. But look back at that draft. Many of the "upside" guys taken ahead of him like Eddy Curry and Kwame Brown were busts, and by the time Tyson Chandler developed, he was no longer playing for the Bulls. If you re-did that draft, Battier would still probably end up around that spot, behind the likes of Gasol, Joe Johnson, Tony Parker, Chandler, and potentially guys like Gilbert Arenas and Michael Bradley.
Um...I mean Zach Randolph.
Not to say that the numbers don't pull in favour of younger players in the draft developing into studs far more often, but I don't think anyone believes Lillard, or anyone after the top three, four picks frankly, are single-handily turning around a franchise. I'm talking about a very solid pick here in a draft that I'm less and less excited about by the day.
The other thing with age is that it only matters if you do something with that extra time. The NBA draft is littered with prospects who have all the upside and youth in the world, but never actually spend the time trying to reach their potential. This is not something I'm worried about with Lillard.
People around Lillard and Weber State knew he could get to this point. (Being a high lottery pick.) But when a broken foot sidelined the "Fly Guy" after just eight games of his junior year, serious questions lingered. At the least, some thought it might take an extra year to get back to form, a year granted him by the NCAA as a medical hardship.
It turned out he wouldn't need that extra year. While unable to play basketball, Lillard spent five days a week in the weight room and studied every game of the 71 he had played at Weber State to that point, determined to make his game better in any way possible. (Ignore the stuff about Jimmer -- journalists lazily compared Lillard to Jimmer all season, though their games were only somewhat similar.)
The results were noticeable. In his reclaimed junior season, Lillard shot better overall, behind the arc, and at the line; grabbed more rebounds and dished more assists; nabbed more steals and turned the ball over less -- all while playing the most minutes and taking the most shots he had in his career. With high prognostications (and perhaps the lesson of Harold Arceneaux from his own alma mater in his mind), he is forgoing his senior year to enter the draft.
So to conclude, yes, I understand age as a concern, but I think in this case it's overblown, especially considering the other options around him the draft. Zeller is an old man, Henson is about the same age, and it's not as if prospects like Sullinger and Marshall are spring chickens. Bottom line is that I'm much less concerned about age than I am about the next and final objection.
4) Lillard played against weaker competition.
He did. There's no denying this and a quick perusal through last year's Weber State basketball schedule tells you all you need to know about the quality of their opponents. I'm not sure a single one of those clubs was close to being ranked (can't recall if BYU was) and while we're still talking Division I here, the Big Sky Conference is hardly the Big East...or even Pac-12.
So where does that leave us?
It's hard to say. There have been a number of solid NBA players who've come out of smaller schools in recent years like Paul George, JaVale McGee, Courtney Lee, Steph Curry, Rodney Stuckey and the aforementioned Granger and Hill, so the precedent is there.
What's encouraging though are his strengths at the 1, strengths that typically translate well from college to the NBA. From Draftexpress:
The most intriguing aspect of Lillard's point guard game is the prowess he shows in the pick-and-roll game, where he has both the vision to find his teammates along with the ability and feel to create his own shot either going to the basket or pulling up in space. Overall, he doesn't appear to be an especially selfish player and shows solid flashes in most aspects of a floor general's game, but whether he can fully embrace the different mentality necessary for the position at the NBA level is something he'll need to work on.
It's one thing of course to run a pick-and-roll at the local Y versus doing it at ten times the speed in the NBA, but athletically and physically we're talking about an NBA player here, something he showed in the recent pre-draft Combine workouts. He'll have to hone his craft to play the 1, but I don't think there's any doubt about how hard he'll work to get to that point. He's been doing it since high school.
Lillard's lack of recruitment motivated him. (Weber State Head Coach Randy) Rahe called him a "self-made player" and said he spent more time in the gym than anyone he has coached in 22 years. Lillard wore his drive on his sleeve, right next to the chip on his shoulder that developed from always being overlooked at a young age.
He eventually blossomed into a two-time Big Sky Player of the Year and last season averaged 24.5 points per game, good for second in the NCAA. Lillard broke every school record possible and gained national recognition for his combination of athleticism and shooting stroke.
"We knew he was going to be a good player for us, but he worked so hard and he's an unbelievably self-motivated kid just to try and work to become the best he can be," Rahe said. "When we got him there was no way I would have known he would end up where he is today."
My takeaway on this one then is that while there's no denying his lack of NCAA experience playing against top competition, Lillard hasn't shied away from it, and has performed well outside of the NCAA against elite prospects. His performance at the 2010 Adidas Nations Camp put him on the NBA map originally, and he's shown that he's willing to work to overcome any other "competitive issues."
Does that guarantee him success at the next level?
Of course not, and truthfully it would have been nice to have seen him work out against other top prospects in these individual team sessions. That too wouldn't tell the whole story, but it would help.
In the end though, I'd be more concerned if we only had a small sample size of success against inferior competition and that's not the case. We're talking about a player who flat out dominated his conference and was very efficient in doing so.
I'd prefer that situation to one of say Marvin Williams, the former UNC prospect who was selected over the likes of Chris Paul and Deron Williams based on an incredibly small sample size. Yes, it was against top competition, but what did that really tell us in the end?
Not too much.
This ties into the recent ESPN.com Insider post by John Hollinger, which didn't rate Lillard very well as a draft prospect. From that piece:
One player that Draft Rater isn't crazy about is Damian Lillard of Weber State, who compiled strong numbers but did so against a weak schedule and is much older than most of the prospects at his position. He not only failed to outrank the top point guards above but also rates behind the less-heralded Tyshawn Taylor of Kansas. No. 6 clearly seems a stretch for Lillard, who looks more like a mid-to-late first-rounder in this analysis.
Lillard's mark was 9.75, a fairly poor mark historically based on a database of "draft rater scores" I compiled last weekend. (Anthony Davis has the highest mark ever at 22.23, besting Kevin Love at 20,78, and Kevin Durant at 19.01.) That mark puts him in the same range as NBA superstars like Hassan Whiteside, Darius Morris, Jodie Meeks and Sam Young.
Not so great.
Normally this would be a huge flag for me because overall, Hollinger's system has been at least a pretty good indicator directionally of how successful a prospect is going to be. (DeRozan and Ed Davis both scored poorly via this metric.)
But this year the bulk of scores were quite poor, with only 14 of the 60 prospects Hollinger reviewed, having a score above 12. I'm not sure if this was due to a change in methodology, but in my database I noted duplicate scores for some historical prospects that differed, so indeed, it looks that changes were made. I sent John a note too regarding the weighting he put on strength of schedule, and player age, as it appears they weigh very heavily in these scores. Considering his draft rater is a statistical attempt to get at a prospect's future PER, it seems weird that Lillard, who had the nation's second-highest PER, would score so low.
And obviously this system of Hollinger's isn't perfect. In past years the draft rater has given low marks to Kenneth Faried (10.25), Ekpe Udoh (10.03) and Brandon Knight (10.02) and I don't think we'd call any of them busts at this point.
So I think all of this analysis, Hollinger's piece as well as everything else we discussed, has to be taken in totality here. By drafting Lillard I think the Raptors would be getting a prospect that has all the tools to be a very good player in the NBA, one who will work his ass off to reach his potential, and one who fits two of the team's biggest needs; an ability to get to the rim, and an ability to spread the floor with back-court shooting.
He's a cheaper option than Bayless, and an eventual upgrade in my books, and could be brought in off the bench to spell Jose, and learn from a true pass-first guard.
I don't think there's currently a better option/fit out there for Toronto.
Now his availability at eight? That's another story...