OGDEN — As a kid, long before he was recruited to Weber State, before he really even knew where the school was or became a two-time Big Sky MVP there, Damian Lillard would choose the Wildcats as his team on a college basketball video game.
Lillard’s next real game will be in the NBA; team to be determined.
The 6-foot-3 point guard from Oakland, Calif., will leave school after his junior season to make himself eligible for the 2012 NBA Draft. He will become the 16th Weber State player drafted and is expected to be the first to be taken in the first round.
Lillard made the announcement Tuesday at the Dee Events Center, where he arrived as a promising freshman and established himself as one of the most talented players in school and Big Sky Conference history. He will walk away with two league MVP awards in three official seasons.
As the NBA scouts started to flock to his games this year, Lillard said he tried to continue to do what had already gotten their attention. He leaves WSU as its all-time second-leading scorer, its top 3-point and free-throw maker and the first Wildcat to be named to an AP All-America team.
“Anything good that has happened to Damian, for Damian, is because he’s worked for it,” Weber State coach Randy Rahe said Tuesday. “Nothing’s been handed to this guy. He’s a self-made player, he’s a self-made person, and that’s why he’s going to be successful. I really believe that’s what’s going to separate him throughout this (draft) process.
“He’s got the talent, but he’s got the intangibles that it takes to be very, very successful, and we know that’s going to happen.”
The 2012 NBA Draft will be held June 28 at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. Lillard will likely be taken in the first half of the first round, with most projections ranging between the 8th and the 15th pick.
Lillard said he has not yet signed an agent but will soon.
The last Weber State player to be drafted by the NBA was Shawn Campbell, taken in the fifth round in 1985. Only two Big Sky players have been taken in the first round (Montana’s Micheal Ray Richardson, 1978; Eastern Washington’s Rodney Stuckey, 2007).
Lillard’s Weber State teammates lifted him up last year after he missed most of what was supposed to be his junior season with a foot injury.
This season, Lillard carried the Wildcats, averaging 24.5 points per game and attracting a multitude of NBA scouts while helping WSU to a 25-7 record (14-2 Big Sky).
“I want to thank my teammates for supporting me from Day One. I want to thank my coaches as well; I don’t think I could have been in this position without them,” Lillard said. “Especially when I broke my foot, I thought that was the time when everybody picked me up. I was kind of down on myself and kind of unsure about everything because I had never been hurt before. That just let me know that this program was about family.”
The kid from California said he felt at home in Utah.
“It might surprise some people, but I think it fit me more than Oakland did, based on how I was raised in my family,” Lillard said. “When I came here, everything was slower than where I’m from. It was different, people were way more polite than they had ever been, and that’s kind of how I was. I think I adapted to it well because that’s the kind of person I was. I think that’s why I get along with so many guys on my team well. We recruit those kind of guys that can adapt to this area — just good guys. The community, the way they embraced me, I think it was because I was able to fit in with them because I was the type of person that they were.”
The video game Lillard played as a kid became a self-fulfilling prophecy as he became one of the greatest players to wear the purple and white at Weber State.
Now, he’s going to the next level.
Lillard was no guarantee to become an NBA prospect when he came out of Oakland High, but he made up his mind what he wanted and worked hard for it.
“I came here, people told me to go to a bigger school, but I did what I wanted to do. They said you won’t be able to go pro if you go to Weber State. You won’t be able to play in the (NCAA) Tournament or you won’t be able to play Kentucky or all these other teams, but I did what I wanted to do because I felt like I could do whatever I wanted to do with my life at Weber State,” he said.
“Once I put my mind to it, I think I took off from there, and now I have a chance to play in the NBA.”