Sam Jones: The Smoothest CelticA slightly different version of this article was originally published in the December 2004 issue of Basketball Digest.
Bobby "Slick" Leonard has seen five decades of pro basketball as a player, coach and broadcaster, so it carries some weight when he declares that Sam Jones is the most underrated guard in NBA history. It is easy to overlook Jones: Oscar Robertson and Jerry West exclusively owned the All-NBA First Team for six straight seasons during his prime and he played alongside several Hall of Famers on the Boston Celtics.
Jones' Celtics went 9-0 in game sevens, four of them in the NBA Finals. Jones averaged 27.1 ppg in those games, with a high game of 47 (against Robertson's Cincinnati Royals) and a low of 18. He scored many of those points with his trademark bank shot, which has almost become a lost art in today’s game (Tim Duncan uses it very effectively and Scottie Pippen employed it frequently during his prime scoring years). He had 37 points against Philadelphia in game seven of the 1965 Eastern Conference Finals—but this was overshadowed by the game’s famous ending: "Havlicek stole the ball!"
Sam Jones won 10 championships in his 12 season Hall of Fame career (1958-69); only Russell, with 11 titles in 13 years, won more NBA championships as a player. The 6-4, 205-pound Jones averaged 17.7 ppg in the regular season and 18.9 ppg in 154 postseason games; take out his first three seasons as Bill Sharman’s backup and those numbers increase to 20.2 ppg and 21.8 ppg respectively. When he retired only West and Elgin Baylor had more career playoff points; thirty five years later, Jones' total still ranks in the top 20, despite the fact that recent players can pad their numbers due to the addition of many games to the playoff format.
Hall of Fame point guard Bob Cousy notes that Jones fit the Celtics' fast break attack perfectly: "In Sam’s case, he was even easier to feed in an open court situation than Sharman because of his speed and quickness. Normally people associate basketball players with height, but in my judgment speed and quickness are what separate the men from the boys."
Sam and K.C. Jones (no relation) usually practiced on the same team, but more than 40 years later K.C. vividly remembers one occasion that he guarded Sam: "He had a stutter step that would kind of halt your defense and then all of a sudden he just glides by you. He did that to me in a scrimmage and it just totally blew my mind that he was so smooth with that."
Tommy Heinsohn, a Hall of Fame forward on those Celtic teams, singles out Sam Jones' versatility as a reason for his success in big games: "There are precious few players right now who have all the shots. They are either really good outside shooters or they try to take it all the way. That’s why this kid Richard Hamilton kind of sticks out in the current NBA, because he has those tweener shots…Sam was the type of player—like Richard Hamilton—who could get where he wanted to get and pull up and shoot the jumpers."
When this comparison is mentioned to Cousy, he immediately rejects it: "As usual, I disagree with everything Tommy says, including that," Cousy laughed. "I don’t think Hamilton is going to be a Hall of Famer…Especially at this stage of the game, I think that (comparison) is vastly underrating Sam." When it is suggested that Heinsohn did not mean that the players are equally accomplished but that they share a stylistic similarity, Cousy good naturedly disagreed: "I guess Tommy is more of a visionary than I am."
Asked who in the modern game is most similar to Sam Jones, K.C. Jones—without knowing Cousy or Heinsohn’s answers--also mentions Hamilton, saying of the Detroit Pistons' shooting guard, "That man is in awesome shape. What’s like Sam is that he moves without the ball and when he gets the ball he's going right up for the shot."
How would Sam Jones match up with today’s premier shooting guards? Cousy says, "When you are talking about Hall of Famers, Sam could easily play in today’s game and give Kobe, McGrady and whoever all they could handle. When you are talking about McGrady, Kobe, Sam Jones—I mean, nobody could stop those guys. They have so many offensive weapons, unless you commit two or even three people to them you are not going to slow them down a lot."
posted by David Friedman @ 5:18 AM