What Happened to the Superscorers?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because one-man teams are rare these days.
By Bijan Bayne
Fifty years ago, on March 8, 1969, 10,600 people filed into the University of Georgia’s Stegeman Coliseum. Why the excitement? LSU basketball star “Pistol Pete” Maravich was in town. Maravich scored 58 points that night and was mobbed by adoring fans. His career college scoring average was more than 44 per game.
The game at Georgia defines an era embodied by Maravich and contemporaries Calvin Murphy of Niagara University and Rick Mount of Purdue. Maravich, Mount and Murphy revolutionized the college game with their outside shooting and deft ball handling. In the 1980s, the men’s college game added two innovations that would seem to only juice scoring: the shot clock and the 3-point shot. And yet, the era of the superscorer came to an abrupt end.
Only three NCAA Division I men’s players have averaged 30 points a game since 1992, and only one since 1997.
By contrast, from 1964 to 1980, every scoring leader averaged 30 points a game — with most above 35. What gives? Credit changes in recruiting and playing style.
Men’s college basketball today is predicated on offenses that initiate from the wing, featuring drive-and-kick play, lateral ball handling and 3-point shooting. At elite programs such as Kansas, Duke and Kentucky, multiple high school All-Americans are attracted to play together — often now for just a year, thanks to the NBA’s requirement that prospects be one year out of high school before they can turn pro. Duke’s megastar Zion Williamson easily could put up 35 per game with less talent around him. Instead, he shares shots with fellow future top NBA picks RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish.
By contrast, Maravich, Mount (35.4 points per game in 1970), Murphy (38.2 per game in 1968) and Notre Dame’s Austin Carr (38.1 per game in 1970) were recruited to score, with teams built around getting them the ball. Carr, who set a single-game NCAA tournament record of 61 points that still stands, was a perfect example. He employed subtle feints to get defenders off-balance and, like Maravich and Murphy, could stop on a dime to rise for his deadly jump shot. No motion was wasted, and his shooting range was not dictated by a painted arc on the floor.
These players had what longtime college basketball analyst Dick “Hoops” Weiss of BlueStar Media describes as “the ultimate green light” to shoot at will. Maravich averaged an astounding 38 shots per game during his college career. This year, Detroit Mercy’s Antoine Davis leads the nation by shooting just under 22 times per game. In 1970, nine teams averaged more than 90 points per game (including Maravich’s LSU Tigers). Only Gonzaga tops 90 per game this year — barely.
The difference, in part, comes from coaching, argues Shawn Fury, author of Rise and Fire: The Origins, Science and Evolution of the Jump Shot — and How It Transformed Basketball Forever. “It’s impossible today to imagine a coach allowing a single player to consistently, night in and night out, shoot 35 to 40 times per game,” Fury says. “Imagine Twitter or a team’s message board if a coach sits on the bench while one of his guys goes 17-for-43 one night. … It’s also hard to imagine teammates willingly accepting one guy taking shot after shot after shot, even if it led to success on the court.”
Still, we may yet get one 30-point scorer this year, as Campbell’s Chris Clemons is sitting right at 30.0 — heights even Stephen Curry never achieved at Davidson. And more great multifaceted scorers are emerging, argues former Eastern Michigan and University of California men’s coach Ben Braun, now a game analyst on ESPNU. “We are seeing more and more scorers who have the ability to step up and hit 3-point shots and take their man off the dribble, which makes them so dangerous to guard,” he says.
But Archie Talley, who averaged 41.1 points per game in the NAIA at Salem College in the 1970s, says the decline of superscorers can be traced to shooting fundamentals. Kids today, he says, grow up chucking off-balance 3s. “A lot of them shoot with their arms or the palm of their hands. It’s not these kids’ fault, but the ball should never touch the palm of your hand,” says Talley, who once scored 50 points four times in a single week and lately has taught shooting at many basketball camps.
Talley also played at a time when college basketball outlawed the dunk. “The reason guys can’t shoot is because of touch,” he adds. “How do you think Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] and these guys developed a touch? I think they should get rid of the dunk.”
Sure, try selling ESPN on that one.
- Bijan Bayne, OZY Author Contact Bijan Bayne