• Oakland's Damian Lillard blossoms in NBA

    Mitch Stephens
    Wednesday, January 8, 2014

    Damian Lillard sent his Oakland High coach, Orlando Watkins, his goals for his sophomore NBA season with the Trail Blazers: Shoot a higher percentage, rebound better, score a little more, be a better leader.

    He set the bar awfully high with his 2012-13 Rookie of the Year season when he ranked first among first-year players in points (19.0 per game), assists (6.5) and minutes (38.6).

    "Everything he put on the list he's improved," Watkins said.

    The most important one?

    "Make the playoffs," Watkins said.

    With Lillard, 23, leading the way, the Trail Blazers are 27-9, one game out of the best record in the Western Conference.

    The 6-foot-3, 195-pound guard is averaging 21.6 points, 5.7 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game. He scored a career-high 41 points Tuesday in a 123-119 loss to Sacramento, which included a franchise-record 26 in the fourth quarter - and a remarkable 14 in less than a minute.

    With Portland down 117-105 with 1:12 left, Lillard made three three-pointers, a fastbreak layup and three free throws to cut the lead to 121-119 with 16.5 seconds to play. "The clock was moving very, very slow," Kings coach Michael Malone told reporters afterward. "Damian just kept on coming."

    Said Lillard: "Once I make a few, I can get going."

    Before Wednesday, he really had it going, scoring at a 26.4 clip over his past five games. "He's one of those kids who has always been very focused and very driven," Watkins said.

    Lillard averaged 22.4 points and 5.2 assists his senior season at Oakland after averaging 19.4 points as a junior. Watkins wouldn't have predicted his pupil would be the Rookie of the Year back then - not even an NBA player - but he knew "that he'd make money playing basketball." More importantly, Watkins said, "He wanted to be an NBA player. And that gave him a chance. ... He was built to want to be the best."

    Lillard received only mid-major college offers, which Watkins said rarely bothered Lillard. "He did tell me once when he was a senior he thought Cal should have recruited him," Watkins said. "I told him he wouldn't want to play for Ben Braun anyway, that he should go to a place where he felt wanted and could make him a better guard."

    Lillard flourished with coach Randy Rahe at Weber State, where Lillard led the nation in scoring for most of his junior season and finished at 24.5 points per game. That vaulted him to the No. 6 pick in the 2012 NBA draft. "After his junior year and seeing what he was doing in the pro-ams, it was pretty obvious he was going to be a lottery pick," Watkins said.

    Lillard continues gives back to to Oakland High's program with shoes, traveling bags, practice jerseys and warm-up suits. "He looks out for our kids and hasn't forgot where he came from," Watkins said. "He's a great role model."

    Not just for high school kids, said Portland coach Terry Stotts. "He's a competitor and at no time does he ever think he's out of a game," he told reporters Tuesday. "He's done that a lot in the two years he's been here. He's a special player."

    Mitch Stephens is a national columnist for MaxPreps.com. E-mail:mstephens@maxpreps.com