With a 19-15 record, and currently the 8-seed in the Western Conference, the Portland Trail Blazers have been one of the league’s most pleasant surprises. It’s been even more surprising that a first-year point guard has been their catalyst.
A year ago, it’s doubtful that LeBron James even knew who Damian Lillard was. But a day before his Heat team takes on the Blazers in a national showdown, James named Lillard his Rookie of the Year, and it’s not hard to see why.
For Portland, it seems as though a possession never goes by without the rookie guard and his boundless energy making their mark. Watching Lillard weave in and out of traffic to unfurl one of his silky-smooth jumpers has been a common sight, and with very little punch from the team’s bench, he and his fellow starters have shouldered the bulk of the scoring load. That burden has forced Lillard to be more of a scorer than a distributor in this first season, but his low assist rate isn’t a product of lacking skill.
Like any other part of the game, passing needs to be dutifully trained. Especially as a pick-and-roll point guard, Lillard must be equipped with a variety of passes that allow him to find open teammates. Thankfully, that skill was emphasized under the watchful eye of assistant coach Phil Beckner during Lillard’s time at Weber State, and the rookie guard has come into the league more prepared than most to showcase it. Already this year, Lillard has shown off a passing repertoire that’s helped the young Blazer guard keep his team in the thick of the playoff race.
The Lob Pass
In a league full of incredible athletes, those who master this type of pass don’t get nearly the credit they deserve. But as Andre Miller, Steve Nash, and Chris Paul have demonstrated over the years, the ability to deliver a perfectly timed lob to a frontcourt teammate makes a team’s offense infinitely harder to guard. Lillard has already shown a great feel for it, both before he dribbles and off the bounce — which is harder than it looks, even if a human pogo stick like 7-foot center Meyers Leonard is on the receiving end.
The Pocket Pass
This has become a must-have given the frequency of pick-and-roll play in today’s NBA. Guards that can do it with both hands, off the dribble — Rajon Rondo, Nash, and Paul — are able to quickly put big men in advantageous situations. Lillard has yet to show great confidence in this going to his left (he often has to put his right hand on the ball during the delivery), but with his dominant right hand, he can deliver this pass with pace and accuracy right off the bounce.
The Hook Pass
Lillard typically uses this pass when involved in ball screens with LaMarcus Aldridge and backup forward Luke Babbitt. Because both big men are a threat to “pop” after screening and make defenses pay with accurate mid-range jumpers, Lillard is encouraged to “stretch the hedge” (take the opposing frontcourt defender farther away from either Babbitt or Aldridge) and then get the ball back to his teammate.
Defenses looking to contain Lillard’s penetration will often ask the on-ball defender to trail behind him over the top of the screen and then use “high hands” to deter any pass back to the popping big. The hook pass off the dribble not only allows for a bit of arc over the outstretched arms of the trailing defender, but also allows Lillard to execute it without telegraphing the moment of his delivery.
The Jump Pass
While widely decried as a cardinal sin in basketball, the jump pass actually has quite a bit of value when used properly. In adjusting to the speed and length of the NBA game, Lillard has adopted it to create “angles of deployment” for teammates, either across the court or lifting behind the play after a pick-and-roll.
The Reverse-Pivot-to-Push Pass
The reverse pivot is one of the game’s must fundamental movements and is used by players of all ages in gyms throughout the country. Lillard uses it on occasion as another technique to make a throwback pass to a big popping behind him. It tends to come in handy against very pesky on-ball defenders who stick tightly to the rookie point guard as he dribbles past the screener.
The Weak Hand Pass
As mentioned above, there is still plenty of room to improve in this area, but Lillard is still way ahead of where most guards are when they enter the league. He is equally capable of making a simple one-hand push pass as he is firing a frozen rope off the dribble 30 feet across the court. The goal for Lillard is to find enough consistency with his off-hand that he has the confidence make such passes routine.
Engage and Kick
While not a unique type of pass, it is certainly something Lillard uses to create shots for his teammates. When he attacks a gap in the defense, there are times when Lillard does so with the specific goal of engaging a help defender before quickly dishing off to an open teammate. With most young players, there is a tendency to consciously evaluate their options on plays like this instead of just reacting and making the correct play.
Lillard, thanks to tons of time spent training these pass-shot reads, is on autopilot when faced with such decisions. If he drives toward the rim and a help defender gets to Lillard’s line of attack, the ball goes out to an open teammate. If Lillard drives and sees space, it’s on to the rim.
Lillard may never rack up gaudy assist totals like Rondo or Nash, but his passing arsenal has given him the tools necessary to balance his overall game. Without that balance, the young guard would head down a path lined with discarded combo guards who could neither score nor pass well enough to make an impact on a winning team. But thanks to his polished playmaking, both Lillard and the Blazers are on the rise. And even LeBron James will tell you about it.