Damian Lillard has a whole slew of reasons why he decided to play for USA Basketball at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
Among them: The chance to play for U.S. coach Gregg Popovich.
Portland’s All-NBA guard — who will be headed to the Olympics for the first time — explained some of his thinking Thursday about why he committed to the national team, which will gather in Las Vegas early next month to start training camp and play a series of exhibitions.
“Pop being the coach of the national team played a big role in my decision to commit,” Lillard said. “I have a lot of respect for Pop as a coach and as a person. I look forward to playing for him, taking in his basketball knowledge and seeing what our team can do.”
The U.S. is aiming to have its 12-man Olympic roster completed perhaps by the end of June. Training camp in Las Vegas begins July 6, and there is a chance that some players who’ll compete in the NBA Finals — if interested and committed — could be added after camp begins. The finals may go as late as July 22, just three days before the U.S. opens its Olympic schedule in Tokyo against fellow gold-medal contender France.
Plenty of players have spoken about the lure of playing for Popovich, the San Antonio coach with five NBA championships. Knowing that Lillard is on the roster might help sway others to commit as well.
“I’m just hoping we can put together a team of great players that fit as one,” Lillard said. “I don’t necessarily want them to say, ‘Oh, Dame is playing so I should play,’ but I do hope they see that top players are making the commitment and look at it as an opportunity to be a part of something special.”
The U.S. is bidding for a fourth consecutive gold medal. Lillard averaged 28.8 points this season and is one of only two players — LeBron James is the other — to average at least 25 points per game in each of the last six seasons.
Lillard has a limited amount of experience with USA Basketball, appearing in games for the senior national team four times. The last of those was in 2014; he wasn’t on the 2016 Olympic team and withdrew from consideration for the team that wound up finishing seventh at the Basketball World Cup in China two years ago.
But he said his desire to play for the Olympic team goes back to watching the 2008 team — the “Redeem Team” — win the gold in Beijing, four years after a disappointing bronze medal showing at the Athens Olympics and two years after another bronze at the 2006 world championships.
That team, with stars like Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and James, went 8-0 at the Olympics and won those games by an average of 28 points.
“I remember watching the Redeem Team and it looked so fun,” Lillard said. “So many stars on one team being able to just play together unselfishly and have fun. That team connected basketball with the best players in the world. It just looked like a great time and they looked so free of their normal responsibility on their NBA teams. I became very interested in USAB because of that. It means a lot to add this to experience and represent my family and country on a major stage that I have not been on.”