Walt "Big Bells" Bellamy Rang Up Some Impressive NumbersWalt Bellamy, who passed away on November 2 at the age of 74, averaged 20.1 ppg and 13.7 rpg during his 14 year NBA career but the Basketball Hall of Fame did not induct him until nearly two decades after he retired; there is a general sense that, as great as Bellamy was, he could have/should have been even more productive--but is that really a fair assessment?
Bellamy averaged at least 22.8 ppg and at least 14.6 rpg in each of his first five NBA seasons. Only Wilt Chamberlain (10), Bob Pettit (nine) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six) had more such seasons in their entire careers--and Chamberlain is the only player other than Bellamy to begin his career with at least five such seasons in a row (Abdul-Jabbar easily met the scoring requirement and he had a pair of 14.5 rpg seasons in his first five campaigns, so he came pretty close to matching this feat). Just seven players other than Bellamy have had multiple 22.8 ppg/14.6 rpg seasons and only 18 players in NBA/ABA history accomplished this feat even once.
Bellamy ranked second in scoring and third in rebounding during his rookie season (league rankings were determined by totals, not averages, until the 1969-70 season). Bellamy set his career-highs in both categories (31.6 ppg, 19.0 rpg) as a rookie in 1961-62, when he also led the league in field goal percentage (.519). Despite his great productivity, Bellamy never made the All-NBA First or Second Teams, thanks to the prodigious numbers posted during that era by perennial All-NBA Team members Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.
After those sensational first five seasons, Bellamy's statistics dropped significantly; he played for four different teams, never averaging more than 19.0 ppg or 13.5 rpg. Bellamy's declining scoring and rebounding numbers may seem odd but it is not unusual for a player to put up his best scoring and rebounding numbers early in his career, as I noted in Pro Basketball's 1000 Rebound Club: The Meek Need Not Apply for Membership.
If Bellamy's career had been shortened by injury or early retirement, those initial seasons would have been enough to earn him a Gale Sayers-type of reputation--but Bellamy kept playing, though not at nearly the same level, and that is what makes it challenging to determine his rightful place in basketball history. Bellamy averaged a double double in six of his final nine seasons and he contributed a solid 13.1 ppg and 9.6 rpg for the 1973-74 Atlanta Hawks as a 34 year old in his second to last season. Bellamy was a very efficient scorer; he shot .516 from the field during his career, an excellent percentage in any era and particularly notable considering how rare it was for a player to shoot better than .500 from the field during the 1960s. He ranked in the top ten in field goal percentage 10 times and he also drew a lot of fouls, finishing in the top ten in free throw attempts eight times.
The gulf between Bellamy's production in the early and late phases of his career is more extreme than is usually seen among Hall of Famers whose careers have not been significantly impacted by injuries but his exceptional first five years combined with more than a decade of at least solid productivity overall are enough to make him a worthy Hall of Famer. He does not belong in the same class with Chamberlain, Russell and Abdul-Jabbar and he does not quite measure up with Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O'Neal but Bellamy--who finished his career with 20,941 points and 14,241 rebounds--does not have to take a back seat to many other centers in pro basketball history.
posted by David Friedman @ 10:53 AM