• Damian Lillard is known as a shooter first and foremost. It’s no surprise why. The Portland Trail Blazers star has launched at least six 3-point attempts per game dating back to his rookie season, and takes more difficult long-range shots than any player in the league save for Steph Curry. Lillard’s reputation as perhaps the game’s deadliest crunch-time scorer was first built on the game-winning, series-deciding triple he made against the Houston Rockets in the first round of the 2014 playoffs, too.

    But boiling the scope of his brilliance down to long-range shooting ability does Lillard’s development a major disservice. It’s not that he’s focusing any less on that aspect of his game, as evidenced by career-highs of 8.2 3-point attempts per game and a 4.3 3-point rate. But what’s sparked the most scintillating stretch of Lillard’s career, and maybe saved Portland’s playoff hopes in the process, is his newfound proficiency at the rim.

    Lillard is averaging 29.5 points, 4.2 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game since January 16, with a true shooting percentage of 64.7. Over 40 percent shooting on nearly nine 3-point attempts per game contributes to that incredible efficiency, of course, but is hardly the sole means behind it. Lillard has also gotten to the free throw line more frequently over the last nine weeks of play, making 92.3 percent of his 7.6 tries per game, 1.1 more than his average prior to mid January.

    That uptick in free throws is no accident. Lillard hasn’t been any more aggressive putting his head down and getting to the rim during this stint than he was prior. He actually averaged 12.8 drives per game before January 16, per NBA.com/stats, a hair more than his average in the interim. The effectiveness of Lillard’s penetration has certainly reached new heights, though, a classic case of the statistics supporting the eye test.

    Lillard is shooting 52.9 percent on drives in Portland’s last 17 games, seventh-best in the league among players who have averaged at least 10 drives per game over that timeframe, and better than the likes of Jimmy Butler, James Harden and DeMar DeRozan. His field goal percentage on drives before January 16? A middling to subpar 45.2 percent, right in line with previously established norms of his career.

    The sample size here is small enough that Lillard’s improved accuracy among the trees could be an anomaly, chalked up to simple chance or quality of opponents. But it also coincides with a dietary switch away from the highly-publicized vegan regimen the 6-foot-3, 195-pounder undertook during the offseason – and apparently caused him to get a bit too light.

    “I did it, but I started to lose a little bit too much weight with all the games and practices and all that,” Lillard said on ESPN’s Hoop Collective podcast, recorded January 17. “I had to balance it out, so now I’ve been mixing it up a little bit more, having vegan meals, still mixing it up with other stuff.”

    The exact timing of Lillard reverting back to his normal diet is unknown. Combined with a period over late December and early January that saw him miss seven of nine games to rest a nagging right hamstring injury, though, it stands to reason that Lillard’s increased weight has led to increased strength, prompting the type of tough, physical finishes that were absent over the season’s first two months – and for the vast majority of his career.

    The three-time All-Star is shooting 60.9 percent from the restricted area since January 16, compared to 55.2 percent during his first 36 games of the season. Finishing has never been one of Lillard’s biggest strengths. It was progress in that regard that made him a different player beginning in 2014-15, no longer just a daring marksman who defenders could pressure 30 feet from the basket with the confidence he’d come up empty at the rim.

    That 60.9 percent clip in the restricted area, by the way, wouldn’t even be Lillard’s career-high over a full season. But unlike three seasons ago, when that personal best of 61.8 percent was set, he’s now producing points via penetration at a truly elite rate. How? Drawing fouls. In his last 17 games, Lillard is scoring on 74.0 percent of his drives to the basket, best in the league among high-volume penetrators. By contrast, when he was most accurate at the rim in 2014-15, Lillard scored a point or more on 54.9 percent of his drives, a solid but hardly spectacular ratio.

    Put more simply, Lillard is shooting 2.5 free throws per game off drives alone, and making them at a 92.9 percent clip. Only Harden, Butler, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James have been to the line courtesy of penetration more often than Lillard recently. That’s pretty good company, obviously, especially for an average-sized guard who lacks the physical trump cards each of those luminaries possess.

    On the final possession of the Blazers’ game against the Phoenix Suns on Saturday, Lillard, who had scored 11 of his team’s last 15 points to tie the score at 104-104, was being tightly guarded by Elfrid Payton just a few feet past halfcourt.

    “I think Elfrid is playing him too close here,” color analyst Eddie Johnson as the game clock crept below five seconds. “This is dangerous.”

    One left side blow-by and awkward right-handed finish through traffic later, Lillard had given Portland a 106-104 lead with just .9 seconds remaining. Payton, according to Johnson, at least, made the wrong choice defensively. But with Lillard shooting like Steph and finishing like LeBron these days, what better option did the Suns new point guard really have?

Fantasy News

  • Kyle Kuzma
    PF, Los Angeles Lakers

    Kyle Kuzma (sore left ankle) will not take part in the FIBA World Cup as Team USA announces its final roster.

    Kuzma sat out Team USA's final tuneup against Australia on Saturday as Marc Stein reports that he is flying back to Los Angeles to get treatment. We should still expect him to be ready for training and congrats to Mason Plumlee for making the team as many speculated that he would be the final cut.

    Source: Marc Stein on Twitter

  • Kemba Walker
    PG, Boston Celtics

    Kemba Walker scored 22 points on 7-of-15 shooting with four rebounds with two assists as USA Basketball had it's 78-game winning streak in tournament and exhibition games snapped on Saturday.

    Walker continues to assert himself as the team's best player but USA losing to Australia was the much bigger story in this one. Harrison Barnes also played well as he chipped in 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting to go with six rebounds. USA will take on Canada on Monday in their last exhibition before taking on the Czech Republic in the first official match of the tournament on September 1.

    Source: USAB.com

  • Derrick White
    PG, San Antonio Spurs

    Derrick White left Saturday’s game after tripping and hitting his head on the floor.

    White left without help but there is no word yet on whether he is dealing with a concussion. He finished with eight points, hitting 6-of-7 three throws in nine minutes with another update sure to come. The third-year guard put up top-125 per-game value, playing 25.8 minutes in his second season. Even with the return of Dejounte Murray, White should still be worth a roster spot in most standard leagues.

    Source: Jeff Garcia on Twitter

  • Marcus Smart
    PG, Boston Celtics

    Marcus Smart, sidelined for almost three weeks with calf tightness, returned to action on Saturday as USA lost to Australia in their exhibition.

    Smart only played nine minutes in this one but still managed to score 7 points with three assists days after being named one of the team’s co-captains. Coming off an NBA All-Defensive First Team selection, he produced top-100 per game fantasy value as it seems he may have finally fixed his shot after shooting under 40 percent from the field in his first four seasons. He also produced a career-high in both steals and triples with 1.8 and 1.6 respectively as his career seems to be on the up and up.

    Source: USAB.com

  • Patty Mills
    PG, San Antonio Spurs

    Patty Mills went off in the fourth quarter and finished with 30 points as Australia beat USA 98-94.

    Although it was only an exhibition, it was still a huge moment for Mills and the Australian team in front of a huge crowd as they handed the US team their first loss since 2006. Mills was serenaded with MVP chants as Joe Ingles also played well with 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting with four rebounds and seven assists while Andrew Bogut came off the bench for 16 points, nine rebounds and four assists in 20 minutes, shooting 7-of-8 from the field.

    Source: USAB.com

  • Kyle Kuzma
    PF, Los Angeles Lakers

    Kyle Kuzma is out for Team USA's tuneup up game vs. Australia with a sore left ankle.

    Kuzma is being held out of this one for precautionary reasons. There's clearly no need for USA Basketball to risk him further injuring the sore ankle. This does not sound like a serious injury and should not affect his fantasy ADP on draft day.

    Source: USA Basketball on Twitter

  • Dwight Howard
    C, Memphis Grizzlies

    Dwight Howard has agreed with the Grizzlies on a buyout, and will sign a non-guaranteed contract with the Lakers.

    The Lakers are giving Howard an opportunity to be fantasy relevant. When given minutes, Dwight can produce double-doubles with the best of them, but he has been changing teams for years now. He will be worth a gamble at the end of your draft if camp with the Lakers goes well, but this is a non-guaranteed deal, and he only played nine games last season.

    Source: Shams Charania on Twitter

  • Marcus Derrickson
    PF, Atlanta Hawks

    The Hawks signed Marcus Derrickson to an Exhibit 10 contract on Friday.

    It looks like Derrickson will be a G-League option for the Hawks, so there's nothing to see here. At one point he was competing for the last roster spot on the team. We don't need to keep of track of every computer-generated player.

    Source: Chris Vivlamore on Twitter

  • Marreese Speights
    C, Free Agent

    Marreese Speights will work out for the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday according to Alex Kennedy of Hoopshype.

    Speights spent last year playing in China and will attempt his NBA comeback with the Lakers. who are in desperate need of an additional center. He is among three centers the Lakers are looking into, the others being Dwight Howard and Joakim Noah. Of those three, Speights unquestionably has the best floor spacing ability, which would be his strongest bet to eke out those other two for the job.

    Source: Alex Kennedy on Twitter

  • Trevor Booker
    PF, International

    Trevor Booker has worked out for the Nuggets and has workouts planned with the Bucks and Clippers, according to Alex Kennedy of HoopsHype.

    Booker was out of the NBA in 2018-19, spending the season in China after he didn't get any offers in free agency. He did return to the US to undergo a procedure on his foot but is apparently fully recovered. The last time we saw Booker he split 68 games between the Nets, Sixers and Pacers in 2017-18. If he does make a successful comeback he'll have no fantasy relevance.

    Source: Alex Kennedy on Twitter