Passing Fancy: Wilt Chamberlain as Distributor

Photograph Source: New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer – Public Domain

Nikola Jokić is one of my favorite NBA players.  Since he entered the league in 2015, his multiple talents, uncanny skill set, and high basketball IQ have helped to transform the way we conceptualize the “center” position.  Among his many skills is his brilliant passing, which commentators have long noted.  In their tributes to another all-time great center Bill Walton after his recent death, numerous commentators have made the point that Walton, a first-rate passer himself, anticipated Jokić and the modern game,  with some– Oliver Bateman, for example– arguing that Walton was the first center in NBA history to “function as a passing hub “ for his team’s offense.

This is not quite true.  Although Wilt Chamberlain is obviously  known first and foremost for his tremendous scoring ability,  his rebounding prowess, and his formidable presence in the paint, he was freakishly athletic and later in his career he decided to show the world that he could pass too—if and when he wanted to.  During the 1967-1968 season as a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, he wanted to, and if one checks the record book one finds that during that season he led the NBA in total assists with 702, averaging 8.6 per game.  It should be noted that Oscar Robertson actually had a higher per game assist average that year—9.7—but because the Big O only played in 65 games  (as opposed to Chamberlain’s full 82-game slate), he ended up with  633 assists total.    And Chamberlain’s numbers that year were not a total anomaly.  In the previous season, 1966-1967, Chamberlain’s average for assists per game was pretty similar–7.8–which placed him third in the league behind Guy Rodgers and Robertson.

The above corrective is not meant to argue that Chamberlain saw the floor as well as Walton, much less Jović (or a player such as Luka Dončić), but that Wilt was so talented and versatile in his abilities and skills that he could play a different style game if the situation warranted and Wilt was agreeable.  In this regard, remember that he began his post-college career by spending a year (1958-1959) with the Harlem Globetrotters, a team where fancy passing was common and highly valued.

As is well known, early in his career—with the Philadelphia Warriors– Chamberlain scored like no one before or since, famously scoring 100 points in a game in 1962 during a season in which he averaged over 50 points a game.   The team moved to San Francisco after the 1961-1962 season, and Chamberlain spent   2.5 seasons with the San Francisco Warriors, before being traded  back to the Philadelphia 76ers (the former Syracuse Nationals) during the 1964-1965 season.  By then, he had already begun to reshape his game, incorporating “hub” passing more completely into his repertoire.

During a four-year run between 1965 and 1969 the Sixers had a great all-around team, with Wilt a member of the squad for the first three of these years before being traded to the Lakers before the 1968-1969 campaign.   The 1966-1967 and 1967-1968 teams were particularly notable.  The Sixers in 1966-1967 were one of the great teams in NBA history, finishing the regular season with a record of 68-13, beating the Celtics in the Eastern Division finals 4-1 (thereby stopping the Celtics from vying for a 9th straight NBA title), before defeating the San Francisco Warriors 4-2 to win the NBA championship. The following year, the Sixers finished the regular season with the best record in the league, 62-20, before losing 4 games to 3 to Bill Russell’s Celtics in the Eastern Division finals of the playoffs.   In addition to Wilt, these Sixers’ teams had three other great scorers—Hal Greer, Billy Cunningham, and Chet Walker (who recently died –RIP)—and   two other complementary, double-figure scorers, power forward Luke Jackson and guard Wali Jones.

With such firepower, Chamberlain realized that he didn’t have to do all the scoring, so he spent more time than in the past feeding people from the post, whether cutters or spot-up shooters.  Not that he didn’t continue to fill up the stat sheet.   In the transcendent 1966-1967 season he averaged 24.1 points, 24.2 rebounds, and 7.8 assists per game, and in 1967-1968 24.3 points, 23.8 boards, and 8.6 assists.

Chamberlain was traded to the Lakers after the latter season and retooled again with that team during the latter part of his career, but never rang up the big assist totals that he did during those two years with the Sixers.  Over the course of his fourteen-year NBA career, though, he still averaged 4.4 assists per game, not too shabby, but easily overlooked in comparison to his career per game scoring average of 30.1 and per game rebounding average of 22.9 (blocked shots were not an official stat at the time).  As a passer, he may not have been the direct precursor of Jović or even Walton, but when he wanted to he could serve as an offensive hub and distribute the rock, as his record in 1966-1967 and 1967-1968 attests.  If you don’t believe me, check out this footage:

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and the Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.