Blazers' Damian Lillard using Team USA as a springboard

Blazers' Damian Lillard using Team USA as a springboard
August 14, 2014, 6:30 pm
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Mark Strotman

Derrick Rose arrived in Las Vegas in 2010 to compete with Team USA, preparing for his third season with the Bulls following a pair of successful NBA seasons that included a Rookie of the Year award and a pair of playoff appearances. Rose earned a spot on USA's roster that summer, won gold at the 2010 FIBA World Championship and parlayed that success into an MVP season with the Bulls, who won 62 games and advanced to the East Finals.

Four years later, Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard, also entering his third NBA season, finds himself in a similar situation with USA Basketball and is hoping this summer's competition will pay dividends that help him in the long run, much like they did for Rose.

"With Derrick in 2010, it was a springboard to his MVP season," USA assistant and Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said of Rose's participation with USA Basketball. "I think guys gain a lot of confidence from it and they’re around other great players. I think you learn from everybody: from great coaches, from great international players. You can’t do anything but grow."

In just two seasons, Lillard has accomplished plenty in Portland. After being named Rookie of the Year in 2013, he averaged 19.9 points and 6.0 assists this past season, was named an All-Star and helped the Trail Blazers to a 54-28 record and playoff berth in the gauntlet that was the Western Conference. He averaged 23 points per game in the playoffs and made perhaps the shot of the year in a Game 5 series win against the Houston Rockets in the first round.

Those accomplishments made him an easy candidate to join Team USA's training camp. Lillard's skill set, too, made him a viable candidate; aside from his defensive efforts and clutch factor, last year Lillard made nearly 40 percent of his 3-point attempts, with his 218 makes ranking third in NBA behind only Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, both of whom are vying for spots on Team USA.

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And in his short time with Team USA -- he was part of the organization's minicamp last summer, too -- Lillard already is taking away valuable experience from his time spent playing against some of the league's best players.

"It’s an opportunity for you to get better," he said. "You’re not the best player on the floor all the time, so it’s a challenge for you. And any time you can be on the floor with the best players and compete against them and watch their habits, you’re always going to come away better from that."

Kevin Love and Blake Griffin both opted out of competition, leaving USA Basketball's interior thin. Paul George's horrific leg injury and Kevin Durant's decision to leave Team USA also thinned out the wing position considerably, though the addition of Rudy Gay should help stabilize the position. For all the holes on the roster, the team is deepest at point guard, which could leave Lillard on the outside looking in.

Derrick Rose has looked like his old self, while Curry is the team's best perimeter guard and gives the USA team a versatile scorer. Kyrie Irving is a former Coach K product at Duke and has been impressive in workouts, and though Lillard outlasted Wizards point guard John Wall there are other wings capable of handling the ball -- James Harden and Gordon Hayward -- making it unlikely director of USA Basketball Jerry Colangelo keeps four point guards on the final roster.

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But like all players in Chicago this week, Lillard has been flexible with his versatility. In Thursday's intra-squad scrimmage open to the media, Lillard spent the majority of his time off the ball, with Irving acting as the Blue team's point guard. That flexibility has stood out to USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski.

"I love Damian. He’s emerged as one of the top young stars in the league and a clutch player. We have really good guards, and so you’re not always going to play at your position: the “1,” where he would be most comfortable," Krzyzewski said. "These guys are all trying to adapt, but I love Damian. Defensively, character, all that. I saw that in the minicamp we had last year. He’s a top-notch player."

Regardless of whether Lillard makes the final cut following Team USA's training in New York next week, he'll take away plenty from this summer's work. And as important and honorable as it is to compete wearing the country's colors, Lillard, along with every other player in camp, is ready for this to help the team next season. The Trail Blazers bring back every piece from last year's playoff team and, with Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge in tow, he believes this summer's work will help Portland take that next step.

"I think we saw that the hard work and everything that we wanted to accomplish, it wasn’t going to be easy. And we did everything that we needed to do to make that happen," Lillard said. "And just to see it actually happen, to get results from everything that we put into it, I think that gives us motivation to take it up a level and get past where we were last season."

No one has been more closely connected to Rose's success than Thibodeau, and the Bulls head coach was admitted on many occasions that his point guard's first stint with Team USA directly contributed to the Bulls' success the following season and beyond. And now Thibodeau is seeing the same kind of attitude and growth from Lillard, who could himself be on the verge of making the next step with the Trail Blazers

"I see a guy with a ton of confidence. He had a terrific year last year, and probably the most important thing is the winning. Obviously he had a great year individually, but it was also what he did for the team," Thibodeau said of Lillard. "And to win the way they won is a credit to him, and you can see how hungry he is to learn and grow. I think when you have that approach, that’s going to serve him well throughout his career."