The Lillard Lesson

The best argument for underclass players staying in college for more preparation is the fact that you can mention Damian Lillard and LeBron James in the same sentence. No, not that you can compare Lillard's game to LeBron's, but you can write this perfectly acceptable sentence: LeBron James for MVP and Damian Lillard for rookie of the year are the two easiest choices for this year's NBA awards.

Lillard lapped the field, averaging 19 points and 6.5 assists per game, because his game is so polished. It's so polished because he stayed at Weber State for four years. The Big Sky Conference might not be stocked with NBA-level talent, but the likes of Shaka Smart at Virginia Commonwealth and Brad Stevens at Butler have shown there are good coaches throughout college basketball. And going against well-coached teams with evolving defensive schemes forced Lillard to improve.

"Over time, playing in the same league and playing against kind of the same bunch of schools and teams starting to prepare for me every year, knowing me a little bit better each year, I had to adjust, because they knew me well," Lillard said late Tuesday night, after the Portland Trail Blazers lost to the Los Angeles Clippers. "Off the floor, my coaches, they held me accountable for every little thing: being in class on time, showing up early to practice, holding other guys accountable. So I think my role in that program and at that school, it was so huge and I had so much responsibility for four years that it prepared me for being able to play at this level.

"As [opponents] kind of got on to me, that’s when I learned to watch film. I saw that they were kind of forcing me to weaknesses at that time. Over the summers, my coaches, they were making me think the game: write down 10 things that you need to get better at and over the summer you need to really get better at it. I got to the point where I was staying over the summer, working with them with those things that I wrote down and the things that they wrote down. And when I came back the next season, teams were forcing me to do something that I had developed over the summer: pull-up jumpers going right. Quick finishes -- we called them Steve Nash finishes, little quick layups. Step-back jumpers. Just small stuff."

All the small stuff adds up to a complete game.

I'm in favor of players having the option to go to the NBA straight from high school; there's no need to deny the rare players who are physically ready to make the leap, and there's no point in wasting scholarships on players who have no interest in going to school. I'm also in favor of the NCAA doing away with its arcane amateur rules, which would make staying in college more financially feasible for these athletes who want that choice. Damian Lillard shows the benefits of waiting to go pro.