No rookie made more of a valiant effort to drag their team into the post season than Portland point guard Damian Lillard.
The unheralded prospect out of Weber State led all players in minutes played, logging 3,167 minutes, joining Wilt Chamberlain and Elvin Hayes as the only rookies in NBA history to lead the league in minutes played.
Until Lillard’s workhorse performance last season, only eight rookies have even finished in the top-10 in minutes played since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976.
The playing time wasn’t excessive, as the 6-foot-3 guard’s presence on the floor made the Trail Blazers a much more dangerous team.
Lillard delivered each night he was on the floor, logging at least 30 minutes a night in every game, as he set a rookie record with 185 made 3-pointers as he averaged 19 points and 6.5 assists per game, both led all first year players.
As one of just 28 players to appear in all 82 regular season games last year, Lillard ranked fifth in the league in 3-point field goals, ninth in points scored with 1,562 and 10th in assists with 531.
Each month of the season, Lillard was named the Western Conference Rookie of the Month and swept each of the 121 first place votes as he was awarded the Eddie Gottlieb Trophy as the 2013 NBA Rookie of the Year.
While Lillard submitted on of the most impressive rookie campaigns in league history, he has set lofty goals for the 2013-14 season, including a selection to the Western Conference All-Star team.
Achieving the goal is a difficult task, as the Western Conference is loaded at the point guard position, as Golden State point guard Stephen Curry was snubbed a year ago even as he was setting a record for most 3-pointers made in a single season.
The plans of having a deeper bench, especially behind Lillard, have already taken a hit during the preseason.
A much deeper Portland team means Lillard can actually rest, as backup Mo Williams has thrived in preseason play, averaging 12.8 points and 5.2 assists in just 26.2 minutes per game.
Having Williams, a former All-Star, as the sixth man off the bench, alleviates much of the pressure Lillard was facing last season, leading to many of his 243 turnovers, the eighth most in the league.
For Lillard to make the leap and replace either Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul or Tony Parker out as an All-Star representative for the Western Conference, he needs to become a more efficient scorer.
Lillard’s 42.9 percent shooting from the field ranked 24th out of the 32 point guards that logged enough minutes to qualify a year ago.
The average NBA player shot 45.4 percent from the field last season.
The 23-year-old guard immediately showed a knack for knocking down mid-range jump shots, but struggled at the rim, converting just 50 percent of his attempts.
Early in the preseason, Lillard has appeared to be a much improved defender, as he is showing a better awareness of when a screen is coming and a sharper anticipation of how to jump passing lanes, illustrated by his three steal performance against Utah Wednesday.
Portland will keep relying on Lillard to provide the offensive spark the team needs, as he has posted 22 points a night through five preseason contests.
Lillard already has the ability to explode for points at any time, as evidenced by his second half outburst against Sacramento on Sunday, scoring 23 of his 28 points over the final two quarters.
The Trail Blazers burdened the entire hopes of the franchise immediately after selecting him in the 2012 NBA Draft and he responded, keeping the team in playoff contention for most of the season until the lack of a bench caught up with the team.
Portland is much deeper and with a successful debut season behind him, Lillard is ready to once again exceed expectations.