The Rise of Sam Jones and Jerry West


Jones’s special attributes as a player, [Red] Auerbach once explained, were his speed, touch, reflexes, and attitude. But there was another quality that made him a standout: dedication. “He’ll do anything you ask him,” said Auerbach. “He’s always in shape and ready to play, and nobody works any harder at basketball than he does.”

Via Legends Profile: Sam Jones

In the midst of the astronomical statistical hijinks of the 1962 season, one of the more important developments happened rather quietly and unassumingly: the emergence of Sam Jones in Boston. Such an unbeknownst trumpeting of a new era couldn’t have happened to a more fitting player. Sam Jones himself was not flashy or demonstrative or demanding of the basketball. He just went on the court and flowed within the offense and amazingly he’d end up with 25 or 30 points. A parallel player would be Alex English of the 1980s Denver Nuggets. These cats just killed you softly.

Well, usually, the killing was soft. If Jerry West was Mr. Clutch then Sam Jones was the eastern branch of Mr. Clutch, Inc. as he hit shots to win several Eastern Division and NBA Finals games. And the 1962 season was where Jones would finally begin his ascent to the Hall of Fame.

The fact that Jones was even in the NBA in 1962 was a tad bit startling. Hailing from North Carolina, he attended tiny and practically unknown North Carolina Central University. Then came two years of military duty. On the advice of a friend, Red Auerbach drafted the 24-year old Sam Jones in the 1957 NBA draft without ever seeing the young man play. The tales of Jones’ jump shot were enough to convince Red to take Jones with the Celtics’ 1st round pick that year.

But Jones’ jump shot wasn’t usually of the swish variety. He took it to the bank early and often. From nearly every angle, Jones was able to utilize the backboard to guide his shot into the hoop. But Sam didn’t show it off too much his rookie year. Backing up Hall of Famer Bill Sharman, Sam rode the bench heavily averaging only 4.6 ppg. As the years ticked by Jones steadily saw his minutes and points rise as Sharman aged.

Season Jones (PPG – MPG) Sharman (PPG – MPG)
1957-58 4.6 – 10.6 22.3 – 35.1
1958-59 10.7 – 20.6 20.4 – 33.1
1959-60 11.9 – 20.4 19.3 – 27.0
1960-61 15.0 – 26.0 16.0 – 25.2

Following the 1961 season, Sharman called it quits and Sam Jones stepped into the starting lineup .

The 6’4″ shooting guard would do his silent assassin routine. 20 points here. 18 points there. 26 one night. 24 the next. Never quite explosive in total numbers, but he could catch fire in certain moments, like this oddball game played against the Lakers not in Los Angeles or Boston, but at the University of Maryland:

Sam Jones led the way with 16 points in nine minutes as Boston moved from a 24-24 tie at the end of the first quarter to a 66-48 halftime lead. Jones finished with 22 points, high for the Celtics.

Jones leading Boston with 22 points was pretty normal for the Celtics. In a season where Wilt averaged 50 and six other players averaged over 29 points, the Celtics’ leading scorers were Tommy Heinsohn at 22, Bill Russell at 19 and Sam Jones at 18.5 points per game. This kind of balance suited Jones just right. He was more than capable of going for 30 points a night, but Jones’ personality and demeanor just didn’t call for that type of night after night scoring explosion like his Lakers counterpart Jerry West could summon.

Speaking of Jerry, this too was his break out season


Unlike Same Jones, West immediately found his way to the NBA and was highly coveted. Along with Oscar Robertson, he was the most famous college player of the 1960 draft. But that fame didn’t immediately translate to on-court production. Joining West in Los Angeles in 1960 was Fred Schauss, his coach at West Virginia, who now took over as the head man in L.A.

Despite their previous relationship, or maybe because of it, Schauss underutilized West. Fearing the 6’2″ shooting guard would wear down if given too many minutes, too fast, Schauss limited West to 35 minutes a night usually bringing him off the bench. Although 35 minutes sounds like a lot, it was actually the lowest average of West’s career until the 1973 season, his last full one in the league.

And while he was on the court, West was not the focal point of the Lakers’ offense. His averages of 17 points and 41.7% shooting would be career lows. Even his FT% was a sinister 66.6%. Elgin Baylor was the star attraction that season, the 1st that the Lakers played in Los Angles after their days in Minneapolis. Baylor averaged 35 points, 20 rebounds and five assists so that was understandable. However, Elgin would miss large chunks of the 1961-62 season with military service thus allowing West the opportunity to step out of his shadow.

The reins were loosened, Hot Rod Hundley was planted on the bench instead of sopping up Jerry’s minutes and a genuine star was unleashed. Averaging 41 minutes a night, West dramatically improved his offense. His scoring went from 17 to 31 points. His FG% from .417 to .445. His FT% from .666 to .769. West’s torrential scoring downpour drowned the Knicks in January of 1962:

The 6-foot-3 Los Angeles backcourt star, an NBA sophomore from West Virginia, scored 63 points [on 22 of 36 shooting] in the Lakers’ 129-121 victory over the New York Knickerbockers.

Only Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor, West’s Los Angeles teammate now in the Army, have bettered the mark.

Despite such amazing strides, and tremendous defensive ability, West remained a bit reticent about his own abilities. Gradually, he grew into the familiar Mr. Clutch that season and despite only having Baylor for half the schedule, the Lakers would improve from 36 wins in 1961 to 54 in 1962.

Back East, Sam Jones’ Boston Celtics won a then-record 60 games.

These were the two best shooting guards on the two best teams in the league that season. Odds were that they would meet in the Finals.

The Lakers had a relatively easy time dispatching the Detroit Pistons, but the Celtics would have their hands full with Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia Warriors in the Eastern Division Finals. It was truly one of the great series in NBA history, that naturally came down to a last second shot in a game 7…

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