Damian Lillard was playing in Portland, Ore., on Saturday night when Weber State won in overtime, just like many people believed he would be doing this year.
The number of people who could have dreamed Lillard would be playing on TV at the Stott Center, doing a postgame interview across town for the Portland Trail Blazers while his former WSU teammates were waiting for a bus, is much smaller.
Even fewer could have dared believe, like Lillard did, that the Oakland native would be not only a top 10 lottery pick in the NBA draft but a leading candidate for the rookie of the year award.
Just two days before Saturday’s game, Lillard was given the Western Conference rookie of the month award at the Rose Garden — which the Blazers starting point guard in turn gave to his mom — for averaging 18.4 points and 5.9 assists per game through November.
Lillard visited Weber State’s practice Friday at Portland State to say hello to his former coaches and teammates; the next night, while the Wildcats were clawing out a tough overtime win over the Vikings, Lillard scored 25 points to lead the Blazers to their fifth straight win, including nine of their Blazers’ final 12 points in the fourth quarter.
Having Lillard at practice Friday brought back flashbacks for Weber State coach Randy Rahe.
“It was great. Damian came in, smiling, laughing — it reminded me of the 17-year-old kid we had when he first got there. It was really fun for the team. You could just see it on Damian’s face, he was really excited to see everybody.”
Lillard is no longer just a top rookie of the year candidate but also a potential All-Star, but Rahe says Lillard keeps track of the Wildcats like he did while he was still dominating the Big Sky Conference and becoming the second-leading scorer in school history.
“Damian’s still a huge part of our deal,” he said. “He is so close to our program. He knows all of our stats, he calls all of the time with our assistants, he’s checking in with the players — he’s talking with them, he’s texting with them. He knows our schedule, he knows who’s playing well. That kid is so invested into our program. It was fabulous to see him. He looks terrific. He’s happy and he’s playing his butt off.”
Had the Blazers been at the Rose Garden on Friday instead of Saturday, Rahe might have been able to watch Lillard play in person again, as he did when Portland came to Salt Lake in the NBA preseason to face the Utah Jazz.
It would be easy to hold Lillard up as an example to the current Weber State team of how hard work pays off, Rahe said he doesn’t need to do that.
“I don’t say a word to our team about Damian. I don’t bring him up. It’s not fair to those guys; it’s not fair to individuals, it’s not fair to our team. This is a different team, they don’t need to be hearing from me ‘Damian this, Damian that.’ They know Damian, they know what he did. I never want to compare these guys to him or what he’s done. They’re trying to form their own identity, they’re trying to form their own team. Rarely does his name come up unless we’re just chit-chatting behind the scenes.”
Battling through overtime to come out of Saturday’s game with a win over Portland State and a sweep of the Wildcats’ first Big Sky road trip gave Rahe a glimpse what that identity is.
So far, Weber State is a team that used five players in double figures, all between 12 and 14 points, to scrap out a hard-fought win Saturday instead of relying on a dominant scorer like Lillard was when he was the second-leading scorer in the nation last season, averaging 24.5 ppg.
Rahe said through the summer and fall, he hasn’t been sure the Wildcats had enough toughness, team chemistry and leadership to contend in the Big Sky, where they were picked second in the preseason polls.
But beating Portland State in OT, Rahe said, “told me they’ve got all those things that they need.”