One of the cool things about Bradley Beal’s historic scoring binge is that it gives us a chance to look back at great players from previous eras. In scoring 34 last night against the Golden State Warriors, Beal reached 18 consecutive games of 25 or more points, breaking a record set by Hall of Famer Walt Bellamy as a rookie in 1961-62.
Bellamy was a two-time All-American at Indiana, which was the big school nearest to his home in North Carolina that would accept African Americans. In his final collegiate game, he scored 28 points and grabbed 33 rebounds — a single game record that still stands.
He won Olympic gold in 1960 and went on to lead the NBA in field goal percentage...as a rookie. He got only four seasons with what’s now the Wizards franchise. The then-Chicago Packers drafted him number one overall, became the Chicago Zephyrs the following season, and then moved to Baltimore and became the Bullets.
Just eight games into his fifth season, the Bullets made a classic #SoWizards deal, trading Bellamy to the Knicks for Jim Barnes, Johnny Egan, Johnny Green and cash. The guys they got for him were decent and had lengthy careers, but none approached Bellamy’s level of play, who appeared in four All-Star games at center in an era dominated by Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.
What kind of player was Bellamy? Scoring and rebounding. Basketball-Reference lists his closest comparisons as Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing. I’m dubious about including Olajuwon because he was one of the great defenders in league history, and Bellamy had some issues at that end of the floor.
A few years back, I created an “era translator” that seeks to help with comparisons of players across eras. Basically, such comparisons typically degenerate into a conversation about which model of time travel is more realistic. And while I love talking about time travel, it’s not a great way to talk basketball.
For me, the key isn’t to imagine what LeBron James might do if he magically appeared in 1961 exactly as he is today, but instead to look at relative dominance. In other words, how does James’ dominance over his era compare to the dominance of Oscar Robertson over his era? That level of dominance is something that can be meaningfully compared.
The “era translator” is a simple tool that looks at a player’s contributions during his era and then recontextualizes them in another. More simply, if a player scores 25% of his team’s points, we can apply that fact to different eras of basketball to get a feel for how player types compare across those eras. And basketball figures is filled with repeating player types who provide similar kinds of production in similar kinds of ways.
But enough background, what does the translator have to say about Bellamy and Beal?
In 1961-62, Bellamy averaged 31.6 points, 19.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. I’d love to include other categories like blocks, steals and turnovers, but those weren’t counted until the 1970s. That season, the average team registered 118.8 points, 71.4 rebounds and 23.9 assists per game.
So, with a bit of math, we can see that Bellamy accounted for 26.6% of points, 26.6% of rebounds and 11.3% of assists. Benchmark that to the 2019-20 season (111.3 points, 45.0 rebounds, 24.3 assists) and Bellamy’s translated averages are 29.6 points, 12.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game.
There are two players this season averaging at least 25/10/2: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Karl-Anthony Towns. This doesn’t mean Bellamy is “as good” as Giannis or Towns — there’s much more to consider. I’ll come back to this.
But first, let’s look at Beal’s numbers if I translate him back to 1961-62. This season, the Wizards guard is averaging 30.3 points, 4.4 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game. That’s 27.2% of an average team’s points, 9.8% of their rebounds and 24.7% of their assists.
Benchmarked to 1961-62, and his numbers look like this: 32.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.9 assists. Two players from that season had slash lines at least that good: Oscar Robertson and Jerry West.
Robertson isn’t the right comp for Beal. That season was the Big O’s triple-double season — 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists to go with 30.8 points. Robertson averaged a triple double for his first five seasons. He’s a comp for do-it-all superstars like Lebron.
West and Beal are interesting, though. In 1961-62, West was in his second NBA season, and he averaged 30.8 points, 7.9 rebounds and 5.4 assists — numbers very similar to Beal’s translated stat line.
Of course, no comp is perfect: that season, West played in the second of his 14 All-Star games and was named first team All-NBA for the first of 10 times (he was second team twice). West was also named to the All-Defense team five times. It likely would have been more, but the honor wasn’t established until his ninth season.
But, the point of the translator isn’t to provide perfect comparisons. Rather, it’s to offer some insight on the concept of relevant dominance. Bellamy’s production in 1961-62 was similar to that of an elite performers from today like Giannis and Towns. Beal’s production today is an echo of players from yesteryear like West.
Other information should be included in any cross-era comparison, of course. The honors and accolades players earned during their careers are illustrative of how they were perceived at the time. In other words, during West’s playing days, he was perceived as one of the NBA’s very best players — consistently one of the top two guards. Beal isn’t at that level.
Similarly, Bellamy was clearly an outstanding player, and while his numbers may be evocative of Giannis, like Beal, he was not quite at that elite level. The awards/accolades on (and missing) from Bellamy’s resume are a bit like Beal’s. As good as he was, Bellamy never was considered an MVP candidate and never received All-NBA honors.
Still, it’s fun to see Beal make history and to have the opportunity to learn a bit more about former greats.