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It was that magical moment this year when Portland’s Damian Lillard endeared himself to the nation. Game 6 against Houston. Inbounds pass to him standing a good two feet past the three-point line with less than a second on the clock. Swish at the buzzer. Then he grabs the public address microphone and yells “Rip City!” to the euphoric crowd. Pure gold.
But almost four months removed from that night, it’s still to be determined whether Lillard has done enough at the USA National Team training camp to endear himself in the eyes of managing director Jerry Colangelo, head coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff.
Sure there’s an absolute plethora of point guard talent on the current roster in Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving. But there’s also a case to be made for 2013 Rookie Of The Year Lillard — especially if Krzyzewski decides to take less big men and go more in the small and fast direction when trimming the roster to 12 players in the next 48 hours.
With Rose taking an additional rest day Wednesday for the exhibition against the Dominican Republic, Lillard in turn saw the most game time for the team as part of the evaluation process and netted seven points with three rebounds, three assists and one steal. But the fact that Rose may realistically need to rest his knees on occasion during the FIBA Basketball World Cup schedule could work to the benefit of Lilllard to sub in as point guard with some of the other backcourt heavies rotating into shooting guard duties.
“He’s a good player, no doubt,” said USA assistant coach Tom Thibodeau. “But we’re in the situation right now where we have 16 really good players. Damian’s a young guy getting better and better and has a great skill set. I thought his defense was very good last night and we all know he can score. He seemed real comfortable out there.”
So whether or not he boards the plane to Gran Canaria with the team on Saturday is still cloudy, the one thing that is undisputed is Lillard’s likability which has led to his immense popularity.
The Trail Blazer has amassed more than 500,000 followers on both Twitter and Instagram, landed a recent endorsement deal with Adidas and a role in the quite epic new Madden 15 commercial alongside actors Kevin Hart and Dave Franco.
“Yeah, that was fun,” said Lillard of the experience. “I had the best part. I got to steal somebody’s girlfriend. And I don’t think a basketball player has ever been in a Madden commercial before so that’s cool.”
And while he says just being part of camp has benefitted his game tremendously from the coaching to being surrounded by some of the very best players in the league, one intangible that can’t be overlooked is desire and how much Lillard truly wants this. Which he does.
“This already has been a great experience and a great opportunity for me to get better by being a part of something like this,” said Lillard. “But to get on that plane would be a real accomplishment. I’ve always been
a fan of USA Basketball and to be part of the team would mean a lot to me.”