There was some skepticism about Damian Lillard entering the NBA after he concluded his career at Weber State last year. Critics said he wasn’t very athletic and didn’t face the best competition while playing for a Big Sky Conference school. Perhaps, he just wasn’t ready for the next level. But Lillard proved them wrong. He led the 2012-13 NBA rookie class in points (19) and assists per game (6.5) in his first season with the Portland Trailblazers. Lillard also topped the league in total minutes played.
The recently crowned NBA Rookie of the Year sat down with SI Kids at Champs Sports in Time Square, New York recently to discuss his childhood career choice (wrestling!), advice for underdogs and the NBA postseason.
What was your best on-the-court moment this season?
“Having the opportunity to play in front of all of my family and friends in Oakland. And having a big game there against the Warriors back in January [Lillard scored 37 points and made 7-of-12 three pointers against Golden State]. I can’t recall a better time on the floor in my life than playing in front everyone I grew up around and my biggest supporters. Everyone was witnessing me play in the NBA.”
What surprised you the most during your rookie year?
“The most surprising thing, for me, was how I was able to hold up in the league. People said the long season, the interviews and travel wears you out. But I was kind of surprised how well I was able to adjust.”
During your acceptance speech for the NBA Rookie of the Year Award you mentioned you wanted to be a professional wrestler as a kid. What would have been your name if you pursued a career in the ring?
“I don’t know what my name would have been. But I can tell you I would have been like Stone Cold Steve Austin. That’s definitely the type of wrestler I would have been!”
Coming from a small school, Weber State, you entered the league as an underdog but quickly proved that you can play at a professional level. Do you have any words of encouragement for fellow underdogs?
“The biggest thing is to not buy into other people’s opinion of you. For me, I believed in myself. That’s important. Being an underdog, no one really believes in you or wants to give you a chance. If you don’t believe in yourself how do you expect someone else to? Stay focused and keep grinding. That’s what I did. I knew that in time people would see the same thing I saw in myself.”
What are your NBA playoff predictions?
“I think Miami will win the Eastern Conference Finals, but it won’t be easy. I see the Heat taking the series 4-2. I think the Spurs and Grizzlies series will go a full seven games. Memphis will win it. Miami will take the championship. LeBron will win the Finals MVP, of course. He makes that team go.”