The Hoop Diary NBA Jersey Countdown continues with number 42.
Most basketball fans are familiar with the work of James Worthy, complete with his signature beard and goggles. Worthy ran alongside the great Earvin “Magic” Johnson during the “Showtime” Lakers days of the 80’s and here we recap his stellar career.
Drafted with the first overall pick of the 1982 NBA Draft, James Worthy came to a Los Angeles Lakers team that was fresh off an NBA Championship. Some strange circumstances led to Worthy’s pick landing in LA which prompted the NBA to install new rules.
Ted Stepien was the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers from 1980 to 1983 and was notoriously known for trading future first round draft picks for established players. In his most infamous move, Stepien traded the pick that became James Worthy to the Lakers in February 1980. Stepien sold the team in 1983 and the practice of trading first round picks year after year was outlawed by the NBA. The rule is now affectionately known as the Ted Stepien rule.
Now that we know how Worthy joined an NBA Champion team… let’s get back to his impact.
Worthy’s rookie season was no doubt an enjoyable one, mixing it up with players such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Jamal Wilkes and Norm Nixon among some other future household names. Even though Worthy was a number one draft pick, he happily accepted his role in the team behind Wilkes, who was still in his prime and starting at small forward. A fractured left tibia cut Worthy’s rookie campaign short and he missed the entire Laker playoff run. These Lakers made it all the way to the NBA Finals only to be swept by the Philadelphia 76ers. Despite the disappointing end, Worthy had completed a serviceable rookie season averaging 13.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.2 steals per game.
Worthy continued to impress in his sophomore season but much like his rookie campaign, the season ended in disappointment. Once again the Lakers fell in the NBA Finals, this time to the Boston Celtics in seven games. James got his first taste of the playoffs though and thrived, averaging 17.7 points and five rebounds per game.
The revenge was sweet in 1985, Worthy’s third season with the Lakers. Los Angeles once again made the NBA Finals but this time took out their Celtic rivals in seven games to claim the title. Worthy had supplanted Wilkes as the starting small forward and was now seeing over 30 minutes of action per game. With the extra minutes came increased production and Worthy repaid the coaching staff with 21.5 points and over five rebounds per game throughout the playoffs.
By 1987, James Worthy was a very recognizable face in the NBA. Being in Los Angeles with the rock star Lakers and donning his patented goggles, Worthy was not only recognizable by his looks and team but also by his numbers.
His regular season line of 19.4 points, 5.7 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.3 steals per game while shooting .539 from the field was certainly enough to put him on opposing coach’s scouting reports and earn him his second straight All-Star selection. By the time the playoffs came around, LA was one of basketball’s hottest tickets.
The Lakers once again defeated the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals, this time in six games. Worthy was everywhere, posting 23.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks per game. At this stage of his career, Worthy had competed in four postseasons and taken away two pieces of jewelry.
And his best was still yet to come…
Here’s a fun quote from NBA.com that sums up Worthy and the Lakers’ 1988 playoff run:
“The Lakers struggled through the 1988 postseason, surviving seven-game series against both the Utah Jazz and the Dallas Mavericks before facing the Pistons in the NBA Finals. In 24 playoff games Worthy averaged 21.1 points, 4.4 assists and 5.8 rebounds while shooting .523 from the floor. He capped the year by scoring 36 points, grabbing 16 rebounds and handing out 10 assists as the Lakers beat Detroit, 108-105, at the Forum to win the title.”
Here’s Worthy’s top 10 plays of the 1988 NBA Finals.
A simply amazing performance by Worthy in that series. The Detroit Pistons had no answer for “Big Game James”.
Worthy went on to play a total of 12 seasons in the NBA, collecting three championships, one Finals MVP and seven All-Star selections. Over the course of his career, he averaged 17.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.1 steals per game and shot the ball at a .521 clip from the field.
A great addition to the countdown.
Other notables: Connie Hawkins, Jerry Stackhouse, Kevin Love, Nate Thurmond and Vin Baker.