SALT LAKE CITY — Damian Lillard went up on the Utah Jazz radar several years ago, shortly after he began his career at Weber State. Now that he’s the front runner of the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award the Portland Trail Blazers point guard is a source of pride — and concern — for Utah coach Tyrone Corbin.
“I’m happy for the kid, I’m happy for Weber State (and) the recruiting help it will get from a guy like him,” Corbin said Thursday. “He’s certainly shown himself well in this league.”
In a scheduling oddity, the Jazz (25-21) will play host to Portland (23-22) Friday at EnergySolutions Arena, then the two teams will meet again Saturday at The Rose Garden, the Blazers’ home court.
The Jazz and Blazers split a pair of games in the preseason. Tonight’s game will mark Lillard’s regular-season debut in Utah, where he played four years of college basketball for coach Randy Rahe.
Averaging 18.1 points per game, Lillard, 22, is Portland’s second-leading scorer behind All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge (20.7).
Lillard has already received two Western Conference Rookie of the Month awards.
The Jazz began scouting Lillard during his freshman season at Weber State and kept close tabs on him throughout his career. He was on their draft board but with only a second-round pick in the 2012 draft they had no chance.
Portland took him with the No. 6 overall pick.
Corbin said his son, Tyrell, a point guard at Salt Lake Community College, would often play pick-up games with Lillard in the summertime.
In addition, former Jazz guard Ronnie Price, who now is Lillard’s teammate at Portland, also worked out with Lillard.
“They talked about how talented he was,” Corbin said. “Ronnie Price was always a big fan of his, going up and playing against him in the summer.”
Corbin said he personally watched Lillard play “a couple games last year” and was impressed with his offensive skills.
“He can really score the ball,” he said. “He’s seemed to really figure out (how to adjust from college to the NBA).”
“To be that young, he’s really poised,” Jazz guard Randy Foye said. “I think that has something to do with playing four years in college. He’s a really good player. As a team, we understand what he can do.”
The Jazz are coming off a victory Wednesday night over New Orleans. Before that they suffered a 45-point home loss to Houston.
Corbin and his players felt the pinch of that loss but have tried to put it behind them, chalking it up to a nightmarish game that simply got away from them.
“We’re back on the right track, we still have some work to do,” said Corbin, whose team earned a 104-99 win Wednesday.
“After coming off the game we lost by so many points, it’s a tough, tough game the next night because you put pressure on yourself,” Corbin said. “The players are disappointed in their performance. You put pressure on yourself to do a better job and that’s taking you away from your regular game.”
The Jazz struggled early on against the Hornets, but rallied with a strong second quarter.
Now their attention is focused on the Blazers, who sit behind them in the Northwest Division standings.
Lillard had 10 points and eight assists in a 106-104 home victory over Dallas on Tuesday.
Aldridge, a Dallas native, scored the game-winning basket at the buzzer.
The Jazz practiced Thursday morning but did so without top reserve Gordon Hayward, who has missed two consecutive games with a sprained right shoulder.
The team continues to list him as “day-to-day.” Hayward be reevaluated before tonight’s game but Corbin said he’d like to see him play, whether in practice or at a shootaround, before putting him back on the court.
“We want to make sure we’re doing the smart and the right thing by him,” he said. “We don’t want to bring him back too soon and get him hurt.”