The reigning Rookie of the Year talks offseason, rap, what it was like having his first signature shoe and where it’s all headed with Jeremy Rincon.
This time last year, I wasn’t privileged enough to get credentialed to NBA Summer League. Instead, I found myself in the office of a magazine editor, piled high with thousands of copies of a local magazine months past its prime, on the East side of Vegas—Henderson, for those of you familiar with the area—talking about high school basketball players, the overall outlook of prep basketball and the business aspects of AAU. After about an hour in the office, Christian “Pop” Popoola, a high school and college basketball consultant, walked in, in a hurry. He started gathering workout gear and said he was going to conduct workouts at UNLV where Summer League was happening. One person specifically, Damian Lillard, he took note of. “He’s good,” Pop said. “The kid is the future. He’s gonna blow up next year, just watch.”
I’d heard of the kid from Weber State when he was drafted, but never did any extensive research on him, nor seem him play one second at the small Utah school. Instead of sounding clueless and asking who that was I merely asked, “Why do you say that?” He smiled at me and said, “He’s a four-year player in college. Incredibly smart kid and a well-rounded ball player. Just watch.”
It’s safe to say that what has happened to Damian Lillard over the past year has been nothing short of exhilarating. Where the league has evolved and developed a guard-oriented theme, a good point-guard can deteriorate or be born in a single night. With that being the direction the league has headed, Lillard succeeded in being named an NBA Rising Star, winning the Skills Challenge over All-Star weekend, making the league’s All-Rookie First Team, receiving his own signature shoe from Adidas, gracing the cover of Dime Magazine and unanimously winning Rookie of the Year. With the ROY accolade, Lillard became the first four-year college player (three years of playing, one year red shirt) to win the award since former Trailblazer, Brandon Roy, in 2006-2007 and became the first four-year college player to win the award unanimously since Hall of Fame center, David Robinson, in 1989-1990. It came as no surprise when Lillard won rookie of the year. By the time he had reached the All-Star break in mid February; the rising star stood alone on a pedestal for the award and it was apparent that no one would catch him. Lillard had a sense of comfort on that court that you just don’t see from rookies very often. He was poised and ready for the league before he even played a second on the court and demonstrated extreme confidence in logging a 23-point effort, tallying 11 assists in the process and shooting eight for eight from the free-throw line in his debut as a pro against the Lakers to open the season.
Lillard would go on to prove that it wasn’t just a product of luck as he would average 19 ppg for the season on 43% shooting, including a 38 point, nine assist and three steal night against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers on April 10th where Kobe put up 47 of his own. Lillard would even manage to gain the respect of the Mamba himself in a post-game tweet from Kobe:
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) April 11, 2013
Lillard has tasted success not many others in the league could fathom, even the ones that played a solid 15-20 years in the league. To go with all of his accomplishments both on and off the court, he had his own web series titled, “License to Lillard.” The serious revolved around him and his journey towards being an NBA player, far before he even touched the court, something that magnified who he is and what he’s about and ultimately gave him a lot of exposure as the videos garnered hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube.
“I think it gave people a chance to get to know me as a person and it gave them a chance to see how I worked and that was the basic goal of it,” Lillard said. “I wanted people to see who I was as a person and everything that went into the type of player I was.”
With the web series growing more and more popular, Lillard had more eyes on him as his career began to take off early and soon after winning rookie of the year he received his “Real Deal” signature shoe from Adidas. The shoe captivated the masses of sneakerheads across the country and even brought out hundreds to camp out on sidewalks, braving bad weather as if it were a release for a pair of exclusive Jordan’s. The fact that hundreds of people came out for the launch of the Adidas shoe isn’t anything out of the ordinary. We’re accustomed to seeing sneakerheads go beyond the limitations of what some people would call “sanity” for a shoe, but the fact that this occurred for a rookie was something special, especially for the kid from Oakland who didn’t grow up living that kind of lifestyle.
“It was a good feeling,” Lillard said. “To see that people appreciate what I did and that they wanted to be there to support me. I come from a huge support system and just to see that people that I don’t even know were out that early and trying to get my shoe, showing their support, it made me feel great. I wouldn’t even say I was a sneakerhead. Whatever my mom brought home, that’s what I was wearing. I mean, I love shoes, like Jordan’s and stuff like that, but the only Adidas I had growing up were shell top. So to be able to have my own signature shoe as a rookie was a big deal. Not a lot of people get that opportunity and for me to be one of the only people to have that opportunity it was a blessing.”
Lillard joins elite company in being the growing face of a brand as he joins Derrick Rose, John Wall and Ricky Rubio on Adidas posters after the “Real Deal” release a few months ago and with the way his young career is going so far, it looks like he is lined up for more signature shoes in the years to come. But what direction will Lillard’s signature line go in? With the market shifting towards an almost unaffordable level, it’s becoming harder for people to acquire sneakers and not from a quantity perspective. LeBron James’ 11th signature shoe is projected to top as much as $300 MSRP where his LeBron X ‘Elite” edition sneaker hit a staggering $280. Kobe Bryant’s signature shoe is staying steady around $140 and Kevin Durant’s sixth signature shoe debuting at $135, up $25 from his previous shoe in 2012, so where will Lillard’s fall?
“Honestly, I think it’s all based on demand,” Lillard said. “You have a guy like LeBron that’s won two gold medals, four MVPs, two championships and two Finals MVPs; he’s a superstar so his shoe’s in demand; everyone wants it. So if you can put [his shoe] at that price and everyone will come get it, then why not? But me, I wouldn’t want my shoe to be that expensive. I want my shoe to be able to be purchased by people in the neighborhood I grew up in, you know? Everybody can’t afford to go pay all that money for a shoe. People pay $100 for a shoe all the time so I want my shoes to be closer in that range, you know, $100, $120.”
Being that Lillard is a down-to-earth person makes him a lot easier to appreciate, but realistically, how long could he keep his sneaker line at affordable prices? The market is based on demand, he is definitely right about that. If Nike Twitter RSVP’s are wrapping up in under 30 seconds for a pair of LeBron’s, then there’s no doubt in my mind that if Lillard keeps up his illustrious career he started, then he can be charging close to LeBron-like prices in just a few years.
I trust Lillard with his outlook on sneaker pricing. He came from a good place, has a good mind-set and isn’t the type of person that walks around flashing what he has; he’s a good kid and it appears he’ll make that a sticking point in his line to come, much like Kevin Durant did after holding out for his signature shoe. Plus, Lillard majored in technical sales at Weber State, which got me to thinking, what would Damian Lillard be doing with that sort of degree if he weren’t playing basketball?
While I was waiting for him to finish up talking to another media member, I overheard him say that he enjoys rapping in his free time, so I had to ask, would that be the career for him?
“Honestly, it probably would,” Lillard said. “When I first heard Drake in 2007, that’s when I was like, ‘Alright,’ and I started to flow a little bit. But J Cole is my favorite rapper.”
I went ahead and asked him if he was considering putting out a few tracks or maybe even an album while he was in the league like many NBA players have attempted before him. He just shot me a funny look and said, “I don’t know. I’ll think about it. I might, I might.”
If that were to happen, don’t expect it for at least a couple of more years. He’s only going into his sophomore season and still has to prove his rookie season wasn’t just a one-hit wonder. He’s already set some personal goals, as a player, moving into his second year and it started months ago when his season ended with training and continuing with what got him where he is.
“Going into [my] second year in the league, I’m just happy I was able to have a productive enough first year. Going into my second year I just want to make improvements and not be the same player coming back. I always get back to my roots. I always find myself putting in long hours and going through those tough workouts that got me where I am today, so I can get better.”
Lillard has shown that he’s able to lead an unstable team and with rookies like C.J. McCollum, a promising prospect who was drafted tenth overall to the Blazers from Lehigh University and Allen Crabbe, the Pac-12 Player of the Year last year coming in, they’ll help Lillard by taking some of the scoring needs off of his plate. Lillard has been active with the incoming rookies this summer, too. He’s been coaching them from the bench during the last week of Summer League in Las Vegas and offering tips and advice before and after every game. Portland has a chance to improve substantially from their 33-49 record last season and may even be in contention for a playoff spot by next year in the blood bath that is the Western Conference.
Next for Lillard, though, he is continuing to train in Vegas as he prepares for the Team USA showcase happening next week at the Thomas and Mack center where he’ll get a chance to demonstrate his skills in front of Coach K. There’s still so much to look forward to in Lillard’s future that we should be excited for. We know that right now the league belongs to LeBron, KD and company, but a few years from now it could be Lillard’s. So don’t be surprised when he’s in contention for scoring titles, MVP’s and even championships. It’s going to be a hell of a ride, but as Lillard himself said:
“I’m just dreamin’, pursuin my dream.”—License to Lillard, Episode 1