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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sam Jones: The Smoothest Celtic

A 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."

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:18 AM



At Wednesday, March 11, 2009 1:24:00 PM, Blogger SamiA said...

It's easy to forget how good of shape some of these guys are in. I just recently quit smoking and got back to playing basketball. I have a little bit of "rip" in my game where I need to run around and let guys screen for me...That's some tiring stuff.

I've heard Rip takes great care of his body when it comes to partying and stuff like that.

Adds to the respect I have for professional athletes.

At Monday, November 09, 2009 8:51:00 PM, Blogger hondo said...

I remember Sam being out for a few months with a hand injury. He returned to Madison Sq Garden and scored 51 points with two of his fingers taped on his shooting hand.
As a kid, we all tried to emulate his bank shot. He remains my favorite athlete some 40 years later.

At Tuesday, November 10, 2009 5:01:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Sam Jones' single game career-high is indeed 51 points but he hit that total at Detroit on 10/29/65; that stood as the Celtics' single game scoring mark until Larry Bird scored 53 versus the Pacers in a 1983 game (Kevin McHale later had a 56 point outing, which Bird topped nine days later with 60 points).

Sam Jones' second highest regular season scoring game was 44 points versus the Knicks at New York on 2/13/65, so perhaps that is the game you are remembering, though it should be noted that Jones played in all 80 regular season games that year.

At Wednesday, March 09, 2011 3:08:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

After 1 hectic celtic rally Kareem abdul Jabbar wondered aloud if he had'nt seen the ghost of that old celtic clutch shooter,Sam Jones, loose once more on the Boston Garden floor.
Boston vs Milwaukee playoffs

At Friday, November 20, 2015 10:34:00 PM, Blogger Maurice H Bank said...

I grew up in Brooklyn in the 60's, and Sam Jones was my idol. I loved his shooting style, and he is still today one of the greatest clutch shooters of all time. A gentleman on the court he was both feared and respected by his opponents. He was as good as West and Oscar when it came to shooting and hiting the big baskets, but he was never recognized as they were. He played in an era of West and Oscar, and I think he lost a lot of recognition because of this, but anyone who remembers the NBA in the 60's will tell you he was awesome and deserved to be on the 50 Greatest Ever!

At Wednesday, July 05, 2023 11:33:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regardless, we all know Sam Jones was one of those “ Knick Killers”

At Wednesday, July 05, 2023 12:00:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


A glance at Sam Jones' "scoring splits" and "game logs" at Basketball Reference confirms that he had some of his best games/best seasonal scoring averages versus the Knicks.

At Wednesday, July 05, 2023 12:41:00 PM, Blogger Maurice H Bank said...

Oh boy, did he ever murder the Knicks. Imagine if he had hit road the bench those first few years in Boston?

At Wednesday, July 05, 2023 2:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The Celtics had two HoF, Top 50 guards as starters (Cousy and Sharman) when Sam Jones joined the team, so that was a difficult starting lineup to crack.

In Sam Jones' highest scoring season (1964-65), he averaged 28.0 ppg in 10 games versus the Knicks, which is better than his overall average (25.9 ppg), and his second best average against any team that season, trailing only his 30.8 ppg in 10 games versus Baltimore. In 1963-64, he averaged 25.4 ppg in 11 games versus the Knicks, his best average against any team that season. In other seasons, his highest scoring averages did not come against the Knicks, but I can understand why those two seasons in his prime may have made quite an impression on those who watched him play.

At Wednesday, July 05, 2023 3:22:00 PM, Blogger Maurice H Bank said...

Sorry, my IPhone is outdated making me look like some dummy when I make a comment. Yes, Sam had to ride the bench those first few years, but he was so much class and willing to help in any way he could Auerbach the Brooklyn boy had no problem getting him to do whatever was needed. I remember at the Boston Garden when they honored Auerbach he finished by saying “ I would like to thank Sam Jones for making me such a great coach.” I think that summarizes the career of perhaps the most underrated and certainly as Bill Russel said, the best clutch shooter in league history. (His actual comment was something like “ if I had one person to take the last shot to win a game or championship I would take Sam Jones over anyone who ever played the game.” Quite the compliment from such a great as Bill Russell the best center I ever saw play. By the way, when i heard Sam had passed I cried on my loveseat for days. I am 73 as I write this..Stay well!

At Wednesday, July 05, 2023 5:11:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree that Sam Jones is underrated by those who do not know basketball history. Fortunately, the NBA included him on both the 50th Anniversary Team and the 75th Anniversary Team.

At Wednesday, July 05, 2023 6:47:00 PM, Blogger Maurice H Bank said...

Unfortunately, he is only known by oldies but goodies like us. How about he faces off against Oscar in the only playoff series they ever met and went toe to toe Oscar scores 42 and Sam 47!!! That tells it all. Stay well, Maurice HBank

At Wednesday, July 05, 2023 7:48:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I am not old enough to remember Sam Jones' career, but I did my research. Those of us who are old enough to remember certain players or who did research have a responsibility to educate the uninformed.

At Wednesday, July 05, 2023 8:44:00 PM, Blogger Maurice H Bank said...

Goid for you. I am envious at 73 of anyone younger.My family is from Poland- Warsaw. Yours?


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