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October 31, 2010

Wildcats rise attributed to Lillard

The origin for this article about the college recruitment of former Oakland High star Damian Lillard was based on this author's false assumption. But accuracy and enlightenment thankfully intervened, thereby transforming a screed into something reality-based. Initially, our premise was a wondering how our local and regional D-1 universities and colleges, plus those in the south of our state, could commit such a turnover in overlooking a talent on the rise. But we then learned the essence -- the truth -- of Lillard's recruitment was all about factors he was seeking.


The 6-foot-2 Lillard is entering his third year at Weber State -- a Big Sky Conference member -- in Ogden, Utah. The Wildcats are coming off back-to-back conference titles, an achievement certainly connected with Lillard's arrival. Weber is 28-4 in league play since he set foot on campus and the 2010-2011 Big Sky coach and media pre-season polls are placing Coach Randy Rahe's squad atop the league once again.

Lillard was named the conference most valuable player last season on the basis of a league-leading 19.9 points plus four rebounds a game and his 112 assists.

Two years ago as a freshman, Lillard earned a first-team, all-league honors.

All this came after a stellar career at Oakland High under Coach Orlando Watkins in which Lillard averaged 28 points a game as a senior. NorCalPreps (NCP) was certainly on to him, situating Lillard sixth in the May 2008 Top 40 and ranking him as the #1 point in December 2007.

Our thinking originally involved questioning why wasn't he at some place like Pacific or playing down somewhere in the Southland, like Long Beach State? Why in the world did he have to leave the Golden State? What made him so overlooked?

It turned out, he wasn't.

Sure, some schools mis-evaluated Lillard's skills set and weren't aware of his powerful drive to improve. They -- now ruefully -- remained absent from the recruiting process.

Watkins remembers at that time: "St. Mary's and Santa Clara were definitely after him." So were many other suitors.

He added, "Damian is a level-headed guy who wanted to be where he felt most comfortable."

That was the crux of the matter. Prestige? Hardly. Glamor? Need not apply.

Whether it was known or not by his pack of suitors, any sort of flash or glib patter weren't going to factor into his decision

After sorting through the possibilities (offers in an NCP article at the time indicated Santa Clara, St. Mary's, San Diego, San Diego State, Fresno State, Boise State, Southern Methodist, Oral Roberts, Wichita State, Bradley and Montana), Lillard's choice was Weber State and Coach Rahe, the latter two years into the position after over a decade assisting at Utah State.

For Lillard, where he went to school and played basketball was important in some ways but not in others. Let's let him explain this conundrum.

"Location wasn't involved in my decision," he said. "I was being recruited by USF, St. Mary's, Santa Clara, Cal a little bit and others. I wanted a coaching staff that was upfront and not telling me what I wanted to hear (or what they thought he wanted to hear). Weber State was straight, saying how hard I would have to work on the court and that they would send me home if I didn't go to class. That didn't scare me."

Maturity prevailed.

After playing club team basketball for the Oakland Rebels and Coach Raymond Young, straight talk was the norm. It was wanted -- actually mandatory.

Lillard knew the situation he desired. It was more a matter of finding where he could play for a grounded coach who matched his own approach.

But even he was surprised by his player of the year honor after last season, "I saw myself getting better but I didn't come here thinking I would do so well so quickly."

Asked about what recruiting advice he would offer to those in that process, Lillard said, "I'd tell them to be patient. You're going to have your ups-and-downs in recruiting and you'll have your favorites of the moment because you like what they are saying but do take it all in before deciding."

He also added this: "Work hard everyday because there is somebody else out there who is working harder."

So now you know and so do we. Not only about Lillard in particular but in understanding that what we sometimes base our opinions on surface level impressions that are sometimes not necessarily congruent with reality. So those wild thoughts/rumors about Lillard transferring back close to home, well, fuhgedaboutit!


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