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Growing up in Oakland, playing basketball in one of the toughest environments you can find. Being an unheralded recruit and then becoming a star at Weber State. Taking his game to the Portland Trail Blazers, becoming the best rookie in the NBA and making two All-Star teams.

All of it has prepared Damian Lillard for this moment.

At 25 years old — or young, depending on how you look at it — Lillard now carries the hopes of an entire franchise on his shoulders. LaMarcus Aldridge is gone, chasing a world title in San Antonio. Wes Matthews is gone, reunited in Dallas with Deron Williams and Jeremy Evans from his Utah Jazz days. Nic Batum is gone, now a small forward in Charlotte. Robin Lopez is gone, a free agent centerpiece with the New York Knicks.

If you're counting, that's four of five starters from the reigning Northwest Division champions. The rubble is clear, and Lillard is the only mainstay remaining. He's the one being counted on to guide a bunch of young and unproven players, a gaggle of free agent signings and draft picks looking to make their mark.

Lillard says he's up for the challenge.

"I have a lot of belief in myself," Lillard told The Tribune. "I give a lot of credit to my upbringing, and I've already done more in this game than I ever thought I would. So I'm prepared for what's to come. This year will be similar to what I went through at Weber State, except on a higher level."

When the Jazz face the Blazers on Sunday at the Moda Center, the preseason will be almost over for both teams. When the regular season starts, Lillard will be counted on for more than just the 21 points, six rebounds and almost five assists per game that he provided last year.

He'll be looked to for additional leadership. He'll no longer have Matthews around to guard premier opposing backcourt players. He'll have to take full ownership in clutch moments, instead of splitting them with Aldridge.

Most importantly, he'll be the unquestioned top option, which means he'll be at the top of opposing scouting reports nightly. Now in his fourth season, and armed with a new long-term contract, Lillard is prepared to be the face of the Blazers on and off the floor.

Not much is expected out of Portland this season. None of that bothers Lillard.

"It's a big thing for him, but I think he's already adapted to it," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "He's a natural leader, and he's embraced the role. He's himself, he leads the guys by example, but at the same time he's not afraid to speak his mind. I think one of the best signs of a leader is that teammates respect the way he goes about his business, and he's done this for three years."

Nevertheless, Lillard faces some challenges:

• Can he be more of a presence on defense? Last season, he struggled on that end, although it's fair to point out that Lillard's position is arguably the deepest in the NBA.

• How will Lillard react without having Aldridge to lean on? One of the things that made Lillard and Aldridge so successful was their ability to play off each other in the pick-and-roll game. They provided space for each other because defenses had a difficult time focusing on both. Now with the Spurs, Aldridge has Tony Parker. Lillard has Meyers Leonard and Mason Plumlee — that's a little different.

• What happens if the Blazers struggle a bit? Lillard didn't do a lot of losing at Weber State. He's been a consistent playoff participant during his NBA career. But this Portland team is expected to end up in the lottery.

Should the Blazers play beyond expectations, Lillard is going to have to do even more, on and off the court.

"Portland's going to be good, because Damian is really, really good," Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. "He has a combination as an offensive player where he can attack you in any way. He has the long-range jumper. He can pull up from mid-range and he can pull up at the rim. He's very, very difficult to guard. Because of that, he can take advantage of different situations and be a playmaker as well."

Four years into his pro career, Lillard has begun to assert himself off the court. It caught many outside the Blazers' locker room by surprise that Lillard is establishing himself as a hip-hop artist. And it's doubtful he'll end up like Kobe Bryant or Allen Iverson — basketball players who tried to rap to disastrous results.

No, Lillard is actually good in that genre. He proved this over the summer, releasing several songs over a few months, and promising more to come.

"Coming into the league, I didn't want people to think I thought I was a big shot," Lillard said. "I took pride in keeping my personal interests to myself. I wanted to figure things out, manage my time and work hard. Now that I'm a bit more established, I don't mind sharing my personal interests to the world."

And why not? He's now on center stage in Portland.

Twitter: @tjonessltrib —

About Damian Lillard

• Entering his fourth season with the Trail Blazers.

• Will lead a team that lost four of five starters from a year ago.

• Averaged 21 points, six rebounds and 4.6 assists last season.

• Is a native of Oakland, Calif.

• Played collegiately at Weber State.

• Signed a longterm contract extension with Portland during the summer. —

Jazz at Blazers

P Sunday, 7 p.m.



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