OGDEN — Damian Lillard was the Big Sky MVP as a sophomore and it’s no surprise to anyone in the league that he was able to repeat as MVP the following year as a junior.
Except, it wasn’t the following year.
The real story about Lillard being recognized as the 2011-12 Big Sky Conference most valuable player on Thursday is the invisible year, the missing one between his sophomore and his junior seasons that Lillard spent rebuilding himself and his game when a broken foot sent him to the sidelines after only nine games in 2010-11.
“When I first broke my foot, I looked it up,” Lillard said. “Michael Jordan broke his foot, too, and he came back and turned into Michael Jordan. That gave me hope. Not just that, but even before I read that, I felt like if anybody hadn’t done it, I was going to come back and do it. I had faith in myself. There was never a moment where I doubted I could be the player I was or even better.”
There’s no question the 6-foot-3 point guard is even better. The Oakland, Calif., product averaged 19.9 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game in his sophomore MVP season. This season, he is scoring at a clip of 24.5 ppg, second in Division I, and has increased in rebounds (5.0 rpg) and assists (4.0 apg) while developing into one of the most efficient players in the country.
Lillard earned all-Big Sky first-team honors for the third time and is just the second Weber State player to earn two league MVP awards after Harold Arceneaux did it in 1999 and 2000.
“I was only able to be MVP because of the season our team had,” Lillard said. “If we weren’t 14-2 and had a chance to win the league, I don’t think I probably could have won MVP.
“For me it just means that all the work I put in while I was hurt, everything I wanted to do for the team, I came out and showed that I worked while I was out.”
The Wildcats (23-5, 14-2) finished second in the Big Sky during the regular season to earn a bye into the conference tournament semifinals next Tuesday in Missoula, Mont.
WSU coach Randy Rahe said Lillard, a nominee for the national Robertson, Cousy and Wooden awards, has earned every honor that comes his way, including his second MVP.
“There’s nobody that works harder than him,” Rahe said. “He deserves it. We’re really proud of him and happy for him. It’s a team award, because you have to have some success to have that happen and a lot of other guys, his teammates, as Damian knows, are responsible for helping that happen, too.”
Junior guard Scott Bamforth and sophomore center Kyle Tresnak were also recognized by the Big Sky on Thursday, with Bamforth (15.0 ppg) being named to the all-conference second team and Tresnak (10.1 ppg) receiving honorable mention.
Lillard has been profiled by ESPN, USA Today and other national sports news outlets, while NBA scouts have tracked his progress throughout the year.
Every college basketball player’s goal is to play in the NBA eventually, Lillard said, but for now, he tries to focus on being consistent with what’s brought him near to his dream.
“As close as it’s getting to me, I’ve got to focus on what I’ve been doing even more. It’s definitely something that’s exciting because you’ve been working toward it your whole life,” he said. “I’ve just got to keep focusing on what I’ve been focusing on, letting everything that’s been fueling me fuel me.”
“As long as I keep those things and not get ahead of myself, I’ll be fine.”
When Weber State wraps up this season, Lillard will have a decision to make about the NBA draft. Soon after, he said, he will make the call about whether to return to WSU for his senior year.
“I think that would be the best thing so I can start getting ready if I was to (declare for the draft),” Lillard said.
“After the season, I’ll talk with my parents, talk with coach Rahe, just to see exactly where I am.”
In the meantime, what fuels Lillard’s burning motivation is the desire to prove wrong any doubters who thought he couldn’t overcome his broken foot, who still think Lillard can’t lead Weber State to the NCAA Tournament.
“I keep those things in the back of my mind,” Lillard said. “I always remember them when I don’t want to get up and work out. Things like that are what get me going. It makes it easier to get up and put in the work.”
Weber State has never been to the Big Dance in Lillard’s career, twice winning the Big Sky regular-season title and hosting the conference tournament only to have an NCAA Tournament bid snatched away by a loss on its home court. This year, the Wildcats must win two Big Sky tourney games on Montana’s court to go dancing.
Lillard doesn’t doubt they can.