I was fired up by the email that turned into today’s question for “Ask Bernie.”
Before I get to that, here’s another reminder and request: please submit your questions by shooting an email to BernScoops@gmail.com
With Jayson Tatum making another All-Star game, going off on a scoring spree to carry the Boston Celtics, and arguably playing the best basketball of his career, will we eventually look at him and proclaim that he’s the greatest NBA player to come out of St. Louis ? He’s so young and has many years left to build his case. Thanks for taking the question. Robert M., Clayton.
This question made me smile. It’s such a fun assignment for me because I really like getting into sports subjects that give me an opportunity to delve into historical perspective. Accordingly, I wanted to do this right and take a couple of hours to put together a list of candidates.
As we go through the names, keep in mind that I look at each player based on their performance and value at the time they competed in the NBA. I don’t believe it makes sense to compare an “Easy Ed” Macauley to Bradley Beal. They’re separated by multiple generations, and played in different eras, and basketball has changed dramatically over the decades. The athleticism and efficiency on display in this league (right now) has never been greater. But the great players during the olden days of NBA basketball were still great players, and should be judged based on the standards of the time. It’s terribly unfair to downgrade them because they came along much earlier in the game’s evolution. And if a player was voted into the Basketball Hall Of Fame … well, that’s quite an honor and should be recognized above other factors.
First, let’s talk about Jayson Tatum.
In his last two games, both wins, Tatum scored 98 total points – dropping 54 on Brooklyn Sunday and coming back Wednesday to burn Charlotte for 44. After starting off 23-24 the Celtics adjusted to first-year coach Ime Udoka, committed to his defense-first principles, and have gone 17-3 since Jan. 23. And Tatum has led the way, averaging 30 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5 assists in his last 20 games.
He’s emerged as one of the league’s best defenders, can score in every conceivable way, and the Boston offense flows through him. Tatum has scored 50+ points in two games, scored in the 40s in three games, and has scored in the 30s in 22 games.
Tatum doesn’t have a great player efficiency rating so far this season; that’s due to his mediocre shooting over the first 40 or so games this season. But his shooting percentage continues to improve, especially from 3-pt distance. The bottom line: among players that have competed in at least 45 games Tatum ranks 1st in the NBA in defensive win shares, is 8th in points per game, and comes in at 10th in VORP (value over replacement player.)
Tatum turned 24 years old on March 3, and he’s already in his fifth NBA season. He’s off to a helluva start: three All-Star teams, All-NBA in 2019-2020, and three finishes (soon to be four) among the league top 20 in scoring.
Tatum ranks second in Celtics history for most career points by a player age 24 or younger. He’s fifth in most points scored by a Celtic in the first five seasons. Among Celtics that have played at least 50 postseason games, Tatum is third with an average of 21.6 points per game; the two ahead of him are Hall of Famers Larry Bird (23.8) and John Havlicek (22.0.)
And as you pointed out, Tatum is still developing as a player, has youth on his side, and will likely pile up a mountain of statistics. And hopefully he’ll be an important piece for an NBA champion.
I’ll be putting Tatum high on the list of the all-time best NBA players from the St. Louis area. But by no means is his ranking a permanent thing; he’ll be moving up. The same goes for Bradley Beal.
Here’s the list:
1. Jo Jo White. NBA Career: 1970-1981. The late Celtics star guard and McKinley High School alum was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015. He was a seven-time All-Star, was a two-time All-NBA selection, helped the Celtics win NBA titles in 1974 and 1976, and was named MVP of the ‘76 Final. White averaged 17.2 points per game for his career, and finished in the league top 20 in assists in seven seasons.
2. Ed Macauley. NBA Career: 1949-1959. A fantastic player who consistently provided impact. The SLUH high and St. Louis University alum played 10 NBA seasons – the first for the St. Louis Bombers, six for the Celtics, and three for the St. Louis Hawks. (He was traded to his hometown team in a deal that sent the draft rights to Bill Russell over to Boston.) Easy Ed helped the Hawks win the NBA championship in 1958, was a four-time All-NBA selection, and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1960. Macauley ranked among the top 10 NBA scorers in eight of his ten seasons, and had five seasons among the top 20 in rebounding. How effective was Easy Ed? His career efficiency rating still ranks 72nd in NBA history.
3. Harry Gallatin. NBA Career: 1948-1958. This is the guy that many forget about. “The Horse” was a seven-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA choice, and a regular on the top 20 leaderboards for points and rebounds per game. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 1991. But in the 1960s the Roxana native coached the St. Louis Hawks for four seasons, and the NY Knicks for two years. Gallatin still ranks 48th in NBA history in the player efficiency rating, and that’s impressive because his last year as a player came in 1958. He played nine of his 10 NBA seasons with the Knicks. Tatum and Beal both can surpass The Horse on this list at some point, but the Hall of Fame distinction means a lot, and Gallatin shouldn’t be penalized just because he played such a long tine ago.
4. Jayson Tatum. Career: 2017-2022. We’ve already covered his NBA achievements during the early years of his career – and as they say, the best is yet to come. Hall of Famer Allen Iverson and ESPN’s Jay Williams have compared Tatum to Kobe Bryant. And how about this praise from Kevin Durant?
“I’ve been in the league for 13, 14 years and I started to tally-mark the matchups, the series, the players that I’ve played against,” Durant said last year on his podcast The Etcs. with Kevin Durant. “I’ve had series against Kobe (Bryant), LeBron (James), Tim Duncan … Jayson Tatum is in that conversation. He’s that elite level player already at 23 and I’m like, alright, I can see where this is going. It was an honor to play against him.”
5. Bradley Beal. Career: 2012-2022. I can’t believe Beal has already logged 10 NBA seasons after being the third overall selection by Washington in the 2012 draft. (Both Tatum and Beal were the third overall selection in their respective NBA drafts.) Beal has averaged 22.1 points per game for his career – but 25.8 points over his last six seasons, which ranks ninth in the league over that time. And Beal is No. 4 in the NBA over the last four seasons with an average of 25.8 points per game … he’s a three-time All-Star choice, was selected All-NBA in 2020-2021, and has ranked among the league’s top 20 scorers in five seasons … Beal finished second in the NBA with a scoring average of 30.5 points per game in 2019-20, and was second again in the very next season with an average of 31.3 ppg. … the shooting guard is second in franchise history with 14,231 points, trailing only Hall of Famer Elvin Hayes (15,551.) And Beal has the most 3-pointers (1,434) in team history … Beal struggled (by his standards) this season. Bothered by a problematic wrist, he shut it down at the beginning of February to have surgery on the wrist and won’t play again this year. Beal has a decision to make after the season: opt out and become a free agent, or stay with Washington. He’s indicated a desire to choose the second option. Based on NBA salary cap rules that apply to veterans that have played at least 10 seasons, Beal can sign a five-year, $242 million contract to remain in Washington. But if he chooses to leave the Wizards, Beal would make $179 million on a four-year contract with any other NBA team.
6. Bill Bradley. NBA Career: 1967-1977. The Crystal City native and Rhodes Scholar from Princeton was the starting small forward on the storied New York Knicks team that won NBA championships in 1970 and 1973. In his 10 NBA seasons, Bradley made one All-Star team and averaged 12.4 points per game. He scored 13 points per game for the Knicks in the postseason. “Dollar Bill” wasn’t celebrated for gaudy stats; he was defined by his basketball IQ, passing ability and his skill for knocking down jumpers from deep range. Those two Knicks teams had Bradley, Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Earl Monroe, Dick Barnett, Cazzie Russell, Jerry Lucas and Phil Jackson. They were known for their intricate offense and exquisite movement without the ball – and Bradley was a prime facilitator. He was voted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1983. Leading into his induction the official news release had this to say about Bradley’s career: “When James Naismith invented basketball, Bill Bradley was the type of player he envisioned. Despite his many successes, Bradley possessed intangibles that do not always show up on the stat sheets. A thinking man’s player, Bradley could watch a play develop two or three passes ahead of time. This scientific approach helped him to excel on both the college and professional level.”
7. David Lee. NBA Career: 2006-2017. Let’s just salute him for a terrific and enduring career. He played 13 NBA seasons, mostly with the NY Knicks and Golden State Warriors … won a championship with the 2014-2015 Warriors, coming off the bench to make valuable contributions in the NBA Final. Lee was a two-time All-Star, made third–team All-NBA in 2012-2013, earned league MVP votes in four different seasons, was a top-20 rebounder in seven seasons. No doubt about it, Lee was a heralded rebounder. Even now he ranks 97th in league history in total rebounds, and is 85th for most offensive rebounds. It’s even better if we use the rebound-percentage metric; Lee ranks 54th in NBA history in that category. Lee was also an underrated player offensively. He ranked among the league’s top 20 scorers three times, ranks 44th in NBA history with a .535 shooting percentage, and his offensive rating is 78th all-time.
8. Larry Hughes. Career: 1998-2012. Hughes had a heck of a ride, playing 727 regular-season games and 49 postseason contests for eight NBA teams. After playing one season for Charlie Spoonhour at St. Louis U, Hughes was drafted eighth overall by Philadelphia in the1998 draft. Hughes didn’t gather many league awards but was selected for the All-Defensive team in 2004-2005. And his career average of 1.5 steals per game is still 87th in NBA history. But all in all it was an impressive career that included 10,000-plus points, 3,000-plus rebounds, more than 2,000 assists, and more than 1,000 steals.
9. LaPhonso Ellis. NBA Career: 1992-2003. The third overall pick (by Denver) in the 1992 draft, Ellis was a dependable starting NBA player for 11 seasons, ending his career with an average of 12 points and 6.5 rebounds per game. The East St. Louis native was an above-average defender and solid rebounder. He was named to the NBA All-Rookie team in 1992-1993.
10. Honorable Mention. I hesitate to put together an “Honorable Mention” list because I’m sure to leave someone out and I’d feel lousy about that. And if I did drop the ball on a player, please tell me. But the St. Louis-area names on such a list would include (in no order) Anthony Bonner, Bob Ferry, David Thirdkill, Jahidi White, Steve Stipanovich, Darius Miles, Ben McLemore, Loren Woods, Lee Winfield, Patrick McCaw, Rich Niemann, and seven-year ABA big man Gene Moore.
Thanks for reading … and again, thanks for the question. It gave me a chance to study something that interests me.
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.