Blazers put Big Sky conference on the map, select Lillard


BY TREVOR GOULD, Couchsideshow.com blogger

Founded in 1963, the Big Sky Conference consists of nine public collegiate institutions situated all over the western region of the United States.

Notable conference members include Weber State, Montana State, Portland State, Northern Arizona, and Eastern Washington. Constantly in the shadow of larger and grander collegiate sporting conferences, the Big Sky Conference isn’t known for producing a large crop of athletes ready to compete at the professional level. Yet last night at the 2012 NBA Draft, Weber State’s coveted point guard Damian Lillard found himself ascending center stage as the Portland Trailblazer’s sixth overall pick, the third Big Sky basketball player in the history of the conference ever to be selected in the first round of an NBA Draft.

Leading up to the draft, it had been widely speculated and projected the Trailblazers intended to select Lillard. According to various reports, they were captivated by his athleticism, true point guard mentality, and intangibles.  Over the last couples of months he had soared up draft boards, eventually cementing himself as one of the top true point guards available in the draft. Everyone in the Big Sky Conference (myself included) was very excited about this fact, but to outsiders, Lillard was a very foreign and unfamiliar name. Playing in the Big Sky inherently prevented Lillard from receiving droves of media attention, throughout his collegiate basketball career you wouldn’t find Sportscenter top ten highlights of him or see television analysts drooling over his natural abilities. Now Lillard is officially an NBA player, and is out to prove to the Trailblazers organization and sporting world why he deserved being the number six pick.

In college, Lillard posted gaudy numbers and showed noteworthy seasonal statistical increases in virtually every category. He averaged a whopping 24.4 points, 5 boards, and 4 assists throughout the 2011-2012 season, while boasting a 46% field goal percentage and shooting 41% from downtown. His sizable trophy case includes a Big Sky Freshman of the Year and two Big Sky Player of the Year awards. He was also a finalist for the prestigious 2012 Bob Cousy Award, an annual honor bestowed upon the nation’s best collegiate point guard.

Despite those fantastic stats and noteworthy hardware, coming into the NBA, Lillard isn’t without his fair share of skeptics.

Many analysts point primarily to his lack of competition against high caliber talent as their main source of concern. And let’s face it; they do possess a very valid point. Torching Big Sky basketball players is far easier than running circles around the hyper competitive teams of the Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, ACC, and Pac-12. The biggest challenge Lillard will face in the NBA is proving he can literally and metaphorically run with the big boys, the fastest and most talented players on the planet. If he can elevate his game and show he can ball no matter what the competition, he has the potential to enjoy a very nice NBA career.

I was lucky enough to be able to witness Lillard’s scintillating collegiate play live a few months ago during my final semester at Northern Arizona University. I was in the stands when he and his Weber State teammates completely dismantled my NAU Lumberjacks 67-49 I can tell you this much, the kid can play. He was easily the most athletic person in the entire arena, at one point launching into an aerial dunk that elicited varying degrees of awe from the audience. While in actuality he missed the dunk, he made a lasting impression in my mind.

As a recent graduate of a Big Sky Conference school, I was incredibly proud to watch Lillard shake NBA comissioner David Stern’s hand as the 6th overall pick. I am excited for him and cannot wait to closely follow his rookie campaign next season. Whether Lillard can elevate his game to play with the best in the world is still up for debate, but I have a comforting feeling he’ll be more then up to the task.

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