After some delay, we finally reach the conclusion of our six-part series on All-Time All-Rookie tours by division. The final installment takes to out to the Pacific Division, where three of the five teams are original pre-shot clock NBA teams all of whom fled the Northeast to try their hand out west. Do the ages of these franchises yield more quality rookies to choose from? Let’s take a look….
-Golden State Warriors: In the case of the Philadelphia Warriors (now Golden State Warriors) there is a wealth of rookies to choose from, including maybe the best player (and the best rookie) of All-Time. We are, of course, referring to Wilt Chamberlain’s monster rookie season in 1959-60 (37.6 ppg, 27 rpg). No matter what you think about level of competition or pace if play from the early 1950s, you just can’t top it. And it’s not like the Warriors or lacking for good rookie seasons from centers. Nate Thurmond, Robert Parish, Joe Barry Carroll, and Marc Jackson all have been very useful as rookies.
Putting aside center and Wilt, the Warriors have tons of rookie candidates all over the court. The Warriors have six Rookies of the Year (Wilt, Woody Sauldsberry, Rick Barry, Jamaal Wilkes, Mitch Richmond, and Chris Webber) and these guys figure prominently on the Warrior All-Rookie squad. At power forward, Webber’s one year Warrior career was pretty good and puts him ahead of Larry “Mr. Mean” Smith, Joe Smith, and Chris Gatling. Small forward is really full of great players (Tom Gola, Jamaal Wilkes, Chris Mullin, Antawn Jamison) but Rick Barry, who is probably the best non-Wilt Warrior, is the choice by a decent margin.
Ironically, the backcourt which is remembered as a Warrior forte the past two decades or so, is not nearly as strong as the frontcourt. At shooting guard, Gus Williams and Purvis Short were pretty good in abbreviated minutes. Latrell Sprewell and Jason Richardson were also both very promising rookies but not stars. In fact, they had very similar rookie numbers:
–Richardson (2001-02): 32.9 mpg, 14.4 ppg, .426 FG%, 4.3 rpg, 3.0 apg, 2.0 topg, 13.8 PER
-Sprewell (1992-93): 35.6 mpg, 15.4 ppg, .464 FG%, 3.5 rpg, 3.8 apg, 2.6 topg, 13.5 PER
The numbers are even closer when you consider that the 1992-93 was a much more offensive friendly time than 2001-02. Still, none of these guys can compare with Richmond who immediately became a stud (22 ppg as a rook). Finally at the point, Tim Hardaway, though not a yet a star, is the clear choice. His only competition was Guy Rodgers, who was decent and missed half the season, and Gilbert Arenas. Arenas was on T-Hard’s level but also missed half the season and took a while, as a second rounder, to earn minutes.
Golden State’s Forgotten Rookie: There are a lot of candidates in Golden State but I am partial to Sauldsberry, perhaps the most forgotten Rookie of the Year in the history of the NBA. Sauldsberry won the award in 1957-58 with the Philadelphia Warriors putting up 12.8 ppg and 10.3 rpg. Sauldsberry was from Compton, California but ended going to the obscure Texas Southern because the school allowed freshmen to play on the varsity squad. He left school in 1954 to play with the Harlem Globetrotters. After a few years with the Trotters, Sauldsberry tired of the Trotters vaudeville aspect and wanted to compete. He was drafted by the Warriors with an eighth round pick in 1957 and made the team playing well immediately. After three solid seasons with the Warriors, Sauldsberry went to the Hawks, where he had trouble.
Why would the Warriors trade a Rookie of the Year so quickly? At the time, there was an unwritten rule (or perhaps written somewhere) that a team would only have a finite number of black players on the team. Indeed, Al Attles told the story of Sauldsberry’s departure from Philly in “Tall Tales”: “When I was a rookie, the Warriors already had four blacks–Guy Rodgers, Andy Johnson, Woody Sauldsberry, and Wilt. Then it became apparent that I was going to make the team, meaning that there would be five blacks. We–the black players–started hearing that one of us would be traded The veterans guessed that it would be Sauldsberry who’d go, and sure enough, he was traded. The theory was that the black players cut each other.”
St. Louis was not a great for Sauldsberry. His playing time declined in 1960-61 and was cut in early 1961-62 after having a dispute with his coach Harry Gallatin. He played a bit with the expansion Chicago Packers/Zephyrs and back with the Hawks in 1962-63 but was out of the NBA after that season. Sauldsberry did have a brief return to the NBA for the 1965-66 season, when Bill Russell tracked him down to add depth to the bench. Sauldsberry played on 39 games, putting up 4.4 ppg and 3.6 rpg in 13.6 mpg. He got a championship ring, though he didn’t log any playoff time. After this cameo, Sauldsberry left the NBA for good and ended up floating around and becoming detached from friends and families. In 2001, James Michael Brodie wrote a great recount of Sauldsberry’s life and times, which is a great read, particularly his post-NBA life. Unfortunately, Sauldsberry died this past September but he is certainly worth remembering.
–Los Angeles Clippers: The history of the franchise that is the Buffalo Braves/San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers has never been a particularly illustrious. Still, the futility of the teams has provided plenty of pretty good rookies, and four Rookies of the Year. Three of those rookies came in 1970s with the Buffalo Braves (Bob McAdoo, Ernie DiGregorio, and Adrian Dantley) and the fourth came in San Diego (Terry Cummings). So, despite all the high draft picks, the L.A. Clippers have never had a Rookie of the Year.
Going to positional picks, Ernie D, despite his award winning status, really isn’t the best rookie point in franchise history. DiGregorio has the best raw numbers (15 ppg, 8 apg) but Randy Smith and Marko Jaric were both much more productive per-minute. Check their per-40 minutes states:
-E. DiGregorio: 17.0 ppg, .421 FG%, 3. 0 rpg, 9.1 apg, 13.6 PER
-R. Smith: 19.5 ppg, .482 FG%, 7.0 rpg, 3.6 apg, 15.5 PER
-M. Jaric: 14.2 ppg, .401 FG%, 4.6 rpg, 5.6 apg, 14.4 PER
Not a great group but Smith is the best of the group and we’d take him at the point but shooting guard is quite weak. The best we could find were part-timers Brent Barry and Quentin Richardson. Q-Rich didn’t even break 20 mpg, which leaves us with Barry as your only two guard, unless you are willing to flip Smith to shooting guard and use one of the point guard. Jaric and Barry are almost dead ringers for each other stat-wise as rooks. We’ll take DiGregorio, though less efficient then Barry or Jaric, because he played a bunch and he passed pretty well to boot.
The strength of the Clippers rookies is up front. At small forward, you get your choice between Lamar Odom and Adrian Dantley, both of whom are very formidable rooks. It’s an interesting choice on several levels. Odom is (and was) a versatile big man versus AD, an undersized pure scorer (and not much else). But Dantley scored better than almost any other player in history. So how to choose? We’ll go with Odom, who fits much better into the rest of the squad.
Power forward isn’t actually as hard as you’d think to pick. Terry Cummings was an absolute beast (23.7 ppg, 10.6 rpg), and actually had career highs as a rook. TC laps the field that is quite formidable: Bob McAdoo, Tom Chambers, Charles Smith, and Maurice Taylor. But none of these guys peaked as rookies like Cummings did and he is an easy choice with his season that fits quite well into Elton Brand’s career.
Surprisingly, Benoit Benjamin is a very viable candidate for Clipper rookie center. Volumes have been written about his underachieving nature and how he dogged it and overslept and missed buses. But Benoit was volumes better as a rookie than Michael Olowokandi (a much, much bigger bust) and Chris Kaman were. Benjamin was a very respectable 11.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg in 26.4 mpg as a rook. I will grant you that Benjamin’s lethargy, which had to be seen to be believed, but he really did blow them away. No, Benjamin’s competition is old Buffalo Brave Elmore Smith. Smith also had a decent career but as a rookie in 1971-72, he played a career high 40.8 mpg and happened to also play in a running time and had 17.3 ppg and 15.2 rpg. Block shots were not compiled as an NBA stat until 1973-74 but at that time Smith averaged an astounding 4.9 bpg that year, the third most blocks per game in a season since the stat was kept. So, it’s reasonable to infer that Smith was blocking 3-4 bpg even as a rookie, which makes him the winner at the center slot for the Clipper franchise.
This leaves the following All-Rookie lineup:
The Clippers’ Forgotten Rookie: You tend to forget that a lot of players ended up being Clippers at some point. I didn’t remember that Tom Chambers cut his teeth as a Clipper. Another rookie for those old Clipps is Craig Hodges, who is best remembered as the three-point specialist for some early Michael Jordan teams. Hodges was drafter as a third-rounder for the Clipps and surprised everyone by making the team and starting over half the season at guard with decent numbers (10 ppg, 3.6 apg in 26.6 mpg). Hodges lasted one more season in San Diego before being dealt to Milwaukee as part of the Terry Cummings-Marques Johnson swap. Despite the fact that Hodges’ ultimate niche was as a three-point shooter, he didn’t make that mark in San Diego, where he shot 30-136 from downtown over two years. With Don Nelson in Milwaukee, however, Hodges was encouraged to shoot, which he did copiously (his threes jumped from 47 to 73 to 85 over the next three years). But Hodges’ slight build and limited passing ability made him only a part-timer and when Don Nelson left in 1987, new coach Dell Harris traded him to Phoenix. After a brief stay in Phoenix, Hodges played three and a half years with the Bulls off the bench (and winning three straight three-point contests) before being cut after 1991-92. Hodges was only 31 when his NBA career ended and he apparently could still play (he even returned, sans team, in 1992-93 to attempt to continue his streak of winning the titles). Hodges went on to play in Europe for a few years but this was not the last the NBA heard from him.
The ending of Hodges’ career was more than a little controversial and he felt that he could still play but his personal views had impeded that goal. Hodges was a poverty advocate, who famously attempted to convince teammate Michael Jordan to use his fame for social activism in Sam Smith’s “The Jordan Rules.” As is detailed nicely at Stop Mike Lupica, Hodges apparently spoke out against the first Gulf War and wore “afrocentric” garb at a 1991 visit to the White House (after they won the title) and pissing off Bulls management royally.
In 1996, Hodges sued the NBA for racial discrimination, claiming that he was blackballed from the NBA for his “blackness” (i.e. that he was too loud in speaking his mind). In fact, Hodges complaint states an example of the discriminatory behavior against him was that Danny Ainge, a similar player, was an “outspoken and notoriously dirty player” but was given lucrative contract while Hodges was forced out of the league. The NBA moved to dismiss the complaint stating that Hodges admitted to being a “black militant” and a “rabble-rouser” in his complaint, a political issue that is a legal basis for excluding him from the NBA. The NBA further argued that Hodges’ action was barred by the two-year statute of limitations for discrimination action. Hodges countered, stating that he didn’t learn of the conspiracy to bar him 1996 when he had a discussion with the NBA director security. The court rejected this argument, noting that the complaint all sorts of incidents in 1992 and 1993 that should’ve made him aware of a possible conspiracy:
-Many teams were not accepting his calls looking for jobs.
-In 1992-93, a former executing the in NBA Players Union suggested that Hodges hire a white agent.
-In 1992-93, Billy McKinney of the Sonics front office told Hodges that he would like to sign him but “brothers have families, if you know what I mean.”
-In 1993, the Knicks tried to sign Hodges but backed off because they heard that he had had problems with Jerry Krause of the Bulls front office.
-In 1993-94, a member of the Spurs front office said that he was “perplexed” that Hodges couldn’t get a contract.
In the end, it did not seem that the court bought Hodges arguments. Rather, the implication was that Hodges, as a fringe player, was hard to employ when there were plenty who could do the shooting specialist job without any headaches–regardless whether Hodges’ political views were enlightened or correct. So, the moral is, once again, that the NBA is a business and not a place for discourse. Not a happy lesson but one that is reinforced over and over again. On a more optimistic note, Hodges’ exclusion has since ended. In 2005, Hodges’ old Bulls coach Phil Jackson hired him to be an assistant coach on the Lakers.
-Los Angeles Lakers: With notable exceptions, the Lakers have slim pickings for their All-Rookie team. Despite a lot of famous names, the Lakers have only one Rookie of the Year (Elgin Baylor). Other big stars either weren’t rookies as Lakers or they trumped by someone else. Magic Johnson lost out to his rival Larry Bird and Jerry West to his nemesis Oscar Robertson.
Though Magic didn’t get the rookie vote, he is clear point guard pick over a couple of nice points in Nick Van Exel and Norm Nixon. Ironically, both Nixon and Van Exel were snagged with later picks but still immediately contributed to the team. The temptation would be to rubberstamp West at two guard as well but he was only okay as a rookie (17.6 ppg, .419 FG%, 7.7 rpg, 4.2 apg in 35.4 mpg). It’s a nice year but when you factor in the high pace, it really isn’t that much better than Eddie Jones’ 1994-95 season (14 ppg, .460 FG%, 3.9 rpg, 2.0 apg in 31 mpg). I think that West is the choice here but it’s not much more than a flip of the coin. Small forward is the easiest slot on the team to fill. Elgin Baylor was dominant as a rookie (25 ppg and 15 rpg). His only theoretical competition was James Worthy, who was only a part-timer as a rook, and George Lynch, a surprisingly effective rookie).
Up front, things are more convoluted. The landscape is not strong. We have Rudy LaRusso and decent players like A.C. Green, Leroy Ellis, and Jim Krebs. Though he is smaller and more scorer than defender, LaRusso is the class of this group. Center is even weaker. George Mikan would be the clear choice but his rookie season predates the NBA and our cut off of the 1954-55 season. With vets dominating the position for decades, the only possible candidate was young Vlade Divac, who did well as a part-timer in 1989-90 behind Mychal Thompson.
The Lakers’ Forgotten Rookie: I’m not sure that Anthony Peeler was a player nobody remembers but the months before he was drafted were a crazy time that have long been forgotten. Peeler was a star shooting guard out of Missouri and had some huge scoring games as a senior, averaging 23.4 ppg overall. He was a surefire lottery pick until he had some problems in May 1992, right before the draft. In a textbook case of bad timing and bad judgment, Peeler was charged with menacing his girlfriend with a firearm and ended up having to plead guilty to felon weapons charges and a couple of related misdemeanors only a week before the draft.
Peeler’s stock didn’t quite plummet as much as you’d think for his behavior. He fell to the Lakers at 15th overall, and they snagged right after Malik Sealy. Had Peeler not been been so out of control, he probably would’ve been drafted in the top eight in the draft. But Jerry West valued talent over reputation and didn’t seem to have much worry taking Peeler. Peeler rewarded the Lakers with four solid seasons off the bench. Peeler probably would’ve logged a couple nice seasons a s a starter but bad timing kept him as a bench player for most of his time in L.A.. As a rook, Peeler sat behind veteran Byron Scott but still had 10 ppg in 21.5 mpg. Peeler was set to start in 1993-94 but injuries limited him to 30 games (but he put up 14.1 ppg). In 1994-95, Peeler was healthy but was deposed as a starter by Eddie Jones. After 1995-96, the Lakers reluctantly gave Peeler away to the Grizzlies to clear cap room to sign Shaquille O’Neal.
Peeler lasted nine more seasons, mostly with Minnesota, where he was the first guard off the bench for the Wolves during that time. For this whole time, Peeler had no reported problems at all, let alone another weapons charge. In the end, Peeler was able to show that sometime a suspect character can be worth the risk.
-Phoenix Suns: While never sporting a dynasty, Phoenix has been as successful as franchise can be without ever winning a title. They’ve missed the playoffs only twice since 1988 and only five times since 1977. Naturally, you’d assume the Suns have been quite adept at finding rookie talent. Well that might be true but most of these guys didn’t quite light up as rookies. Kevin Johnson was pretty good but Steve Nash, Dan Majerle, Jeff Hornacek, Shawn Marion, Cedric Ceballos, and even Larry Nance didn’t play that much as rookies. In fact, there are only three Rookies of the Year in Phoenix: Alvan Adams and Walter Davis back in the 1970s and, more recently, Amare Stoudemire in 2002-03.
Consequently, there aren’t a ton of contenders for most positions on the Suns All-Rookie squad. This is highlighted at the point guard, where your only real choices are Jay Humphries, who was a good bench player his first year, or Kevin Johnson, who started but played only 29 games. KJ was traded to the Suns in the middle of his rookie year, after sitting behind Mark Price for 52 games. On Cleveland, KJ had a year that was pretty similar to Humphries’ but on Phoenix, KJ was very good (12.6 ppg, 8.7 apg, 4.3 rpg, in 31.2 mpg). Given Johnson’s great Phoenix cameo, he gets the point guard slot over Humphries.
Most of the rest of the Suns’ squad is straightforward. Walter Davis is the two guard with no competition at all, same with Amare Stoudemire at power forward, and Alvan Adams at center. The only potentially arguable position is small forward. Here, we run the gamut. Let’s take a look:
–The instant starter: Michael Finley came in and was a rock solid starter (15 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.5 apg in 39 mpg). He wasn’t a star but the ability to play so much and so effectively is extremely rare for a rookie. He was dealt to Dallas the next season for Jason Kidd, which wasn’t actually that bad a deal for the Mavs.
–Making his mark on a great team: Wesley Person came to the 1994-95 Suns and immediately made an impact as a designated shooter (10.4 ppg in 23.1 mpg). He was good enough to convince the Suns to dump Dan Majerle the next season.
–PER Minute Man: Shawn Marion played only 51 games and 25 mpg as a rookie but he already could score in board (10.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg).
–The Waste: Richard Dumas blends a lot of the same strengths as the all of the above players. He became a starter as a rookie on good Suns team (probably the best in team history), he played only 27.5 mpg but scored 15.8 ppg, and he missed a bunch of time with drug-related issues.
Of the bunch, I think we can eliminate Marion for missing most of the season and Person for being the weakest of the group. That leaves us with Finley and Dumas. Dumas had the highest PER of the entire group (18.6) but he missed a ton of time based upon personal issues. So, Finley gets the spot because of his ability to soak up minutes reliably. So, the Suns All-Rookie team ends up looking like this:
Phoenix’s Forgotten Rookie: When we said there was no competition at power forward against Stoudemire, we overstated the case a little. In truth, Armen Gilliam was a pretty good rookie power forward (14.8 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 12.9 PER in 32.9 mpg). Gilliam was a huge star at UNLV (23.2 ppg his final college season) and was the second overall pick in the1987 Draft, behind David Robinson. Gilliam was okay in Phoenix for two years and a little. He improved a bit his second season to 16 ppg but it was obvious he wasn’t a great boarder, defender, or passer. By 1989-90 (his third season, Gilliam had been banished to the bench by the acquisition of star Tom Chambers. In 16 games for the Suns, Gilliam was down to 17 mpg and only 9 ppg.
Clearly, Gilliam was frustrated with his role and, perhaps coincidentally, got into fight with Chambers at practice. He was immediately traded to Charlotte for Kurt Rambis. After leaving Phoenix, Gilliam bounced around from Charlotte (1989-90) to Philadelphia (1991-93) to New Jersey (1993-96) to Milwaukee (1996-99) to Utah (1999-00). Through that time, Gilliam kept the same rap, he could score and not much else, being dubbed “The Black Hole” by teammates who noted his tendency to shoot the ball often when he touched it. Gilliam maxed out at 23 ppg and 10.8 rpg for Philly in 1992-93 but most teams were not satisfied by his total game and he bounced around. Still, he could help a bad team as a starter and a good team as a scorer off the bench. He retired after the 1999-00 season at age 35. Even at the end, Gilliam was still productive and was essentially the same player he was at his peak. Some other fun random Gilliam notes:
-According to ex-teammate in Philly and New Jersey Jayson Williams (in his biography “Tall Tales”, Gilliam was tormented by Charles Barkley and Rick Mahorn when they played together in Philadelphia. After Barkley was traded, Gilliam told the press that he would now get a chance to show his game. Barkley criticized Gilliam, stating that “I wasn’t with [Gilliam] with him on those other two teams (Phoenix and Charlotte, before Gilliam went to Philly), and he didn’t show his game then. I resent that.”
-Gilliam did not like to talk about his personal life but stated that he became a religious person during his career. In fact, in 1994, he walked out of the movie “Pulp Fiction” because he found it profane.
-Near the end of his career, Gilliam changed his first name from “Armon” to “Armen” because: “[m]ost people pronounced it Ar-MON, I’ve been correcting it for a long time, and I just got tired of it. I just thought that if I put the ‘e’ in there, it would make it a lot easier.”
-Jayson Williams had loads of stories about Gilliam. Williams notably claimed that Gilliam challenged back up Charles Shackelford to a fight only to have Shackelford accost Gilliam with a machete while Gilliam was showering. Gilliam disavowed Williams’ stories as, at best, exaggerated
-In 2006-07, Gilliam came back to play for Pittsburgh of the ABA and made the All-Star game.
–Sacramento Kings: The Kings have a rich history that goes back before the NBA’s beginning, including three of the most famous Rookies of the Year ever, Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas, and Maurice Stokes. The well dried up as the team went from Cincinnati to the Midwest to Sacramento but there is a lot to review here. At point guard, we have possibly the best non-center rookie season, Oscar Robertson’s 1960-61 season (30.5 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 9.7 apg). There are actually quite a few good point guard rookies (Tiny Archibald, Phil Ford, Kenny Smith, and Jason Williams) but they aren’t in the same stratosphere as Oscar.
Shooting guard isn’t too bad either with Adrian Smith and Otis Birdsong. Birdsong is the better option, because he had a better overall season. Still, Robertson is plausibly a two guard and we could, alternatively, slot Tiny Archibald to the point and put Oscar at the shooting guard. In this case, we’ll stick with Birdsong, who was a nice shooter and might’ve complemented Robertson a little better.
Small forward pits a couple of decent 1990s small forwards, Lionel Simmons and Walt “The Wizard” Williams against Jack Twyman, the franchise star from the pre-Oscar Royals. All three players were pretty non-descript scoring small forwards as rookies. Twyman is the sentimental choice because he went on to better things (he maxed out at 31.2 ppg) while knee problems knocked down Simmons after four decent seasons. Williams was pretty good before being let go to the Raptors but he, too, was merely a scorer off the bench. Finally, Twyman has to get the bonus points for caring for his incapacitated teammate Stokes. With the competition being so close, Twyman’s good deeds put him over the top.
At power forward, we’ll go with the aforementioned Stokes. The Stokes story is well-chronicled and I won’t go over it here again but if you’re interested, here’s our old rehash. As a ballplayer only, Stokes was damn good. He only lasted three seasons, but Stokes was a monster rebounder, leading the NBA in RPG in 1955-56 and 1956-57 and coming in second in 1957-58 to a rookie named Bill Russell. For his career, Stokes was at 16.4 ppg and 17.3 rpg and 5.3 apg. There are plenty of very good rookie power forwards in Kings history (Jerry Lucas, Steve Johnson, Otis Thorpe, Brian Grant) but this is almost as easy a choice as Oscar. Finally, at center we have all sorts of decent players like Wayne Embry, Duane Causwell, and Sam Lacey. While I hate to make the Kings undersized, I am inclined to put Lucas at center and have a smaller but Hall of Fame frontcourt with Stokes. In fact, the four of the five rookies on this team ended up in the Hall:
Sacramento’s Forgotten Rookie: One of the more confounding rookies in Kings’ history was Reggie King, an undersized power forward (6’6, 225 pounds) drafted late in the 1979 first round. King was rumored to be a top five pick but fell in the draft because of his size and rumors that he had unreasonable contract demands. King had a nice rookie year statistically (8.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 51% from the field in 25 mpg) and he made a name for himself by finishing strong at the rim. King followed the rookie season up with a better second season (15 ppg, 9.7 rpg in 33.9 mpg). King was particularly strong during the Kings’ playoff run to the Western Conference Finals that year (21.3 ppg, 9.9 rpg). King seemed poised to become a star forward and to get a big contract but he slumped to 12 ppg and 6.5 rpg in 1981-82. King lasted only three more seasons in the NBA, as his playing time diminished. It’s not clear how he declined so quickly but the write ups indicate that he gained weight and lost some of his previous explosiveness.