Damian Lillard's 61-point performance shows college years didn’t diminish his 'upside'

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(Getty Images)

In less than two weeks since he began competing in NBA games under the league’s protective bubble, Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard has added 259 points to his total for the 2019-20 season. That's 37 points per game. He arrived in Orlando averaging 28.9, which means that even within the confines of this elongated season, he had “upside.”

Lillard made a mockery once more of the NBA’s obsession with drafting teenagers when he scored 61 points Tuesday in a 134-131 victory over the Mavericks. It was one of the top 45 single-game performances ever, and third 60-plus game of his career. Only six players ever have gone over that mark more than once, and Lillard is in that category along with Wilt Chamberlain, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Elgin Baylor and James Harden.

Again: Chamberlain, Bryant, Jordan, Baylor, Harden. And Lillard.

MORE: The NBA bubble, explained: A complete guide to the rules

The significance of this achievement is obvious in that list of names, but, as the league advances toward the long-delayed 2020 NBA Draft, there is a deeper significance.

Players such as Lillard, who develop through extended time in college basketball, have become devalued to the point that Sam Vecenie’s mock draft for The Athletic does not project any first-round selections who were juniors or seniors last season. There is only one player older than 20: Dayton sophomore Obi Toppin. The average age of the 30 projected picks is 19.2 years.

Analytics are telling teams that the age of players entering the league matters relative to their success, but there are ways to make numbers tell the story you want. A look at the players excelling in the league demonstrates that Lillard is not alone among 20-something success stories.

Of the top 40 scorers in the NBA, 15 played multiple college seasons, 20 were one-and-done and LeBron James went directly to the draft out of high school.

Among those who entered after a single college season, the extreme talent of just about every one was obvious to all: Five of them were No. 1 overall picks and 17 were taken in the top 10. This isn’t about those who are can’t-miss. This is about how the league has shifted to rushing less gifted and accomplished young players into the draft under the belief they’ll be “picked apart” if they take longer to develop and demeaned as having limited upside.

Lillard is showing what a fallacy this is. So is his backcourt partner, CJ McCollum, who is averaging 22.2 points, his fifth consecutive year above the 20-point mark after not cracking double figures in either of his first two seasons.

Lillard was an excellent rookie, scoring 19 a game in 2012-13, but seven years later, at age 29, he has increased his output by 10.8 points per game — a 56.8-percent improvement. Bucks wing Khris Middleton, the 39th pick in 2012, didn’t average 20 points until his sixth season and now is a foundational component of the league’s No. 1 overall seed. Draymond Green, the No. 35 pick in 2012, averaged 2.9 points as a rookie. By his third year he was starting for the champion Warriors and by his fourth he was making the first of three straight All-Star appearances.

How can players such as these be making substantial improvements this deep into their careers and yet today’s experienced college players still be plagued by the ludicrous assertion that a 22-year-old has completed his improvement cycle?

After two seasons at Pitt and two at North Carolina, Cameron Johnson was selected 11th overall by the Suns in the 2019 draft. Johnson has averaged 13 points per game in the bubble setting as the Suns have won seven consecutive games and improved their standing from 13th in the Western Conference to a tie for 10th.

MORE: Five stats that put Damian Lillard's run with Blazers in perspective

But on draft night, an Eastern Conference personnel executive told Sporting News, the reaction among those watching at the time, even those involved in the draft, could be summarized as, “Wow, what the heck are they doing?”

“It doesn’t happen anymore,” the executive said, “so it shocks everyone when it does happen.”

It's no surprise now when Lillard excels. He has matured into one of the league’s greatest players. The Blazers were not among the greatest teams, though. When the league suspended its season in March, Portland was in ninth position, and there was a fear that the league might simply advance to the playoffs upon resuming competition. Lillard lobbied passionately for a chance to compete. Now the Blazers are in the eighth and final playoff position, although they still are fighting in a tight race to engage in a play-in series.

“When I first came here, I said, ‘I didn’t come here to waste my time. They gave us a chance to get in, like we asked for, and that’s what we’re here to do,” Lillard told TNT. “The job still ain’t done, but you know what I’m here for.”

The outburst against the Mavericks was Lillard’s second consecutive game of 50-plus points, something only six others have achieved in the history of the game. If only he’d entered the league with upside, what might he have achieved?

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