NEW ORLEANS — There are stories, lots of them, that give some indication of what this Damian Lillard fellow is all about. But we'll start with one from two summers ago, just after Lillard was chosen with the No. 6 pick in the NBA draft by the Blazers.

Lillard was back home in Oakland, visiting his old high school team and coach Orlando Watkins. The team was going through a drill called, "100 touches," in which players had to run to different spots on the court, tapping the ball up as Watkins directed them. Do it 100 times without the ball hitting the floor, the drill is over. But once the ball drops, the touch-count resets back to zero and the team starts over. Watkins calls it a, "mental toughness drill." Some might call it exhausting.

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Lillard, though, had done the drill hundreds of times while playing for Watkins. But the players he was watching — his successors — just could not keep the ball up. Lillard was getting annoyed. He had come out to the gym not only to check in with the kids on his old team, but to play some pickup games with them. Their inability to finish the 100 touches was delaying his court time.

Finally, when one player failed to dive to keep a ball alive, Lillard had enough. "You guys can't quit," he told the players. He got up, with his friends, and joined the drill, a just-drafted NBA rookie lining up next to high school kids to push them through a drill he had not done in four years. One hundred touches later, of

course, the drill was done and Lillard could finally play.

"That's just Dame," Watkins said. "If he is back here watching our guys, he just wants to see everyone get better."

It was not that long ago, Lillard points out, that he was much like those kids at Oakland High, a skinny teenager with an indeterminate basketball future. The value of a little extra guidance, a nudge in the right direction, is not lost on him.

"It is huge," Lillard said, "because when I was in high school, if I had an NBA player who was coming back to my school and willing to communicate and talk to me, anything I could learn or pick up from him, what he learned that made him successful, I would have loved to have that. So I always want to go back and help out the younger guys where I am from. I am comfortable there, I am happy there, so if I can go back and have any kind of impact on the youth there, I am all for it."

Though only in his second season in the NBA, Lillard has already been generous to both his old high school and his AAU team, the Oakland Rebels. Watkins said that before each of the last two seasons, the Wildcats have received shipments of shoes, socks, traveling warmups, backpacks and practice jerseys, courtesy of Lillard. When Lillard signed his contract with adidas, he made sure that the Rebels — who do not have a sponsor and play in the shadow of the nationally acclaimed Oakland Soldiers — would be supplied with gear, too.

"He has put his own money up to allow our kids to travel," said Marcus Landry, the founder of the Rebels. "Damian remembers where he came from — our program has never gotten a big shoe contract or anything like that. He remembers going out and fundraising, selling raffle tickets, selling candy, doing fundraising dinners, all the stuff we had to do to get to tournaments. He did that. Now, he tries to make it easier for the kids who are coming through."

That's the thing about Lillard. He has followed up a Rookie of the Year debut with a dazzling second season that has him in the All-Star game and making a bit of history by becoming the first player to compete in five events in one All-Star weekend. He is averaging 20.7 points and 5.7 assists — shooting 42.4 percent from the field and 40.4 percent from the 3-point line — for the surprising Blazers, the No. 3 team in the Western Conference. He is only 23, his stardom is just unfolding in front of him.

But Lillard is not some child of genetic privilege imbued with talent at birth, not a player for whom stardom was ordained since grade school. Getting Lillard where he is today took work, most of which was put in By Lillard himself, but with a healthy dose of input and influence from a wide range of coaches and mentors along the way.

Lillard is the product of coaches like Watkins and Landry, as well as AAU coach Raymond Young and assistant Paul Taylor, father of P.J. Taylor, Lillard's best friend since childhood. Lillard has a toughness and an edge, one he derives from his no-nonsense father, Houston Lillard, sharpened throughout his youth in Oakland and finally honed under coach Randy Rahe out of the limelight at mid-major Weber State, his last stop before the NBA.

"Like they say, it takes a village to raise a child," Watkins said. "Dame is the product of a lot of people that recognized that this kid is special, and let's try to bring him along the right way."


OK, another story, this one from the summer of '09. Lillard had just wrapped up his freshman season at Weber State, and had looked good doing it. He averaged 11.5 points on 43.4 percent shooting, earning Freshman of the Year honors. Equally important, Lillard had shown himself to be a promising point guard after Rahe moved 5-6 senior Kellen McCoy to shooting guard and put the ball in Lillard's hands more.

But with Lillard's success came serious angst for Rahe. Lillard had played well enough to draw the attention of major schools around the country, including those in the Pac 12, and Rahe knew his budding star guard would be given enticements to transfer.

"I was really nervous, to be honest," Rahe recalls. "That summer, I talked with Damian, just before went home to Oakland, and I mentioned to him, 'Hey, you're a good player and the word is out.'

"I knew plenty of other teams would be after him and I told him that some teams might want to talk. He said, 'Coach, don't worry about it.' And so I left it at that. But I was worried about it."

Rahe had reason to worry — Lillard confirmed that he was, indeed, approached by teams after his freshman year. At the same time, though, Rahe had no cause to worry at all.

"There was no way I was leaving," Lillard says now. "Loyalty is something that is important to me. It is how I was brought up. Everything was about loyalty. I would never have done that to coach Rahe. I was happy with my situation, and had I done something like that, I might not have made it here."

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Loyalty is a big part of the reason Lillard wound up at Weber State to begin with. As he was coming up, Lillard was easy to overlook. He was undersized as a shooting guard and too much a pure scorer to be considered a point guard.

He took a while to get settled in high school, playing first for Arroyo High as a freshman, but leaving when the Arroyo coach left the school. He went to Bay Area powerhouse St. Joseph's as a sophomore, but was stuck on the bench behind upperclassmen. P.J. Taylor was already at Oakland High, so as a junior, Lillard transferred there, too.

And Lillard was committed to playing for Marcus Landry and Raymond Young of the AAU Rebels. He might have made the jump to the Oakland Soldiers, who recruit nationally and whose alumni include Chauncey Billups, LeBron James and Brandon Jennings, but switching teams never occurred to him — Lillard had been with the Rebels since grade school, and he had no interest in changing.

That was despite the sometimes grueling workouts for which Young is known. ("Maybe not the best reputation to have," Young says now, laughing.) 

Knowing his team would often be overmatched in size and talent, Young would push his players to be in top shape. He recalls a, "brick drill," one he decided to implement after watching his team play defense with lowered hands too often. It was, Young said, among Lillard's least favorite drills, requiring players to hold a brick over their heads while doing defensive slides for several minutes.

He remains close to Lillard, but, Young said, "He understands it now, why I had to push them. But there have been plenty of times that he has told me, 'I couldn't stand you, man.' Back then, he would go out to dinner with P.J. Taylor and he would tell him, 'I can't stand that bald-headed dude with the glasses, man.'"

But Young had a big hand in Lillard's path. He had a connection to Weber State and Rahe, who had been an assistant at Utah when former Oakland Rebel Johnnie Bryant (now a coach with the Jazz) played for the Utes. Young told Rahe about Lillard, and when Rahe went to see him play, he came away impressed. Where some schools showed only tepid interest in Lillard, Rahe pursued him in earnest from the beginning. That registered with Lillard.

And, Watkins points out, Weber recruited Lillard the way he and his parents wanted him to be recruited — Rahe told him that he would have to work hard, he would have to go to class, and only then would he have the chance to be a really good player.

That, too, registered with Lillard. Even as bigger schools began crowding the recruiting process during Lillard's senior year in high school, he kept coming back to Weber State.

"His father is like that," Rahe said. "You know how recruiting is. Everyone comes in and tells you how great you are, how you are going to shoot every ball, you're going to the NBA, you're going to be the man. We don't recruit that way. ...

"We were honest with him and I think that is something he appreciated. His dad really enjoyed that, because he told me later, he was tired of guys coming in and promising his kid everything. That's not the way it should be. Damian knows that. One thing about Damian, he knows when you are bullsh---ing him. He doesn't like bullsh--. He reads people very, very well and he likes honesty."


Third story about Damian Lillard, from here at  All-Star weekend. Lillard was sitting in a room at the Hyatt Regency in downtown New Orleans, the annual meeting for All-Star players. He had been overlooked throughout his career, in high school, in AAU ball, even in college at Weber State. You develop a pretty big chip-on-the-shoulder mentality with that kind of history.

But here he was in a room with the best players in the NBA, some of the greatest of all time. And it struck him that he was not out of place. He was one of them, one of the best. There was no overlooking him now.

Asked what his favorite part of the weekend has been, Lillard said, "The company. Last season, I was just in awe, being here and looking around and seeing all the Hall of Famers and LeBron and Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, I was in awe. Now, I am part of that group. I am in the All-Star game, it is a different feeling. I feel like I belong. I always had that confidence, but now it is like, I am here, I am here with them."

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It wasn't easy getting there, and even after the start of his career at Weber State, Lillard was hardly on a fast track to the NBA. But once Rah and his assistant coaches recognized that Lillard would have a pro future, they began tailoring game plans around his development, especially as a point guard.

When he arrived in Ogden, Rahe said, "Damian knew how to do one thing off the ball screen, and that was score. That part he had figured out. But nothing else."

And so the coaches began working with him, teaching him to immediately recognize the open man when trapped off a screen, teaching him to split a double-team, teaching him to refuse the screen, turning him from a pure scorer into a skilled pick-and-roll point man.

By the time he was a redshirt junior (Lillard hurt his foot as a junior and missed most of the year), Lillard was among the top scorers in college basketball, but was gaining the attention of NBA scouts because of his command of the point guard position. "By his last year," Rahe said, "he was pretty damn good off pick-and-rolls."

It took a leap of faith by one more coach for Lillard to get to the level he's reached here in his second NBA season — Portland's Terry Stotts.

The Blazers had hired Stotts away from the Mavericks before drafting Lillard, and Stotts had a good deal at stake. He had not lasted more than two years in his two previous jobs, with the Hawks and with the Bucks, for whom he had a combined 115-168 record and just one playoff appearance.

But Stotts handed the ball to Lillard from Day One, putting his faith — and, arguably, his future as a head coach — in the hands of a rookie point guard from a little-known college. Lillard wound up playing all 82 games, logging the most minutes of any player in the NBA, and earning the Rookie of the Year award.

Stotts never saw giving Lillard that much time as a risk.

"Damian's special, that makes it a lot easier," he said. "Damian has handled it great, because he is a special player and those kinds of guys don't come around generally. Everyone kept waiting on him to hit a rookie wall and show some signs of weakness or whatever, and he never did.

"Any rookie, no matter the position, you have to be willing to play through mistakes and accept the learning curve, but Damian was just special last year. I did not have the same concerns a lot of coaches might have had when you're relying on a rookie point guard."

And Lillard has come back in his second year smarter and stronger, a better player who is accustomed to the NBA game. He has formed a potent pick-and-roll tandem with fellow All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, and that has the Blazers on track for their first playoff appearance since 2011 and could get Portland out of the playoffs' first round for the first time in 14 years.

It's all very heady territory for Lillard. But he's never lost sight of how he has gotten here, of those who boosted him along the way.

"Everybody that I played for, I thank them all the time for the position I am in because they didn't care about how I felt or what I wanted to hear — they pushed me," Lillard said. "To be successful and to be a person who people respect, you need people who have your best interests and people who want to push you for the right reasons.

"I had people like that in my corner. I was fortunate."