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November 30, 2008
The Free Darko Challenge
One Great Night

by Kevin Pelton

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Alas, the Anthony Morrow ride seems to already have hit its peak. The undrafted rookie out of Georgia Tech was briefly the story of the NBA following his attention-grabbing 37-point, 11-rebound effort on Nov. 15. Since scoring 25 more points the next game, Morrow has totaled 19 points on 6-of-22 shooting the last three games. The addition of Jamal Crawford has squeezed Morrow's playing time, and he was limited to 15 minutes Wednesday at Washington.

Even if Morrow never scores in double figures again, he's already made history of a sort. Whenever an undrafted rookie in the future puts together an unexpected performance, we're sure to invoke Morrow's name. (Before, I went with Richie Frahm, who improbably put up 30 points in the midst of his two months of hot shooting for the Sonics as a rookie in 2003-04.)

Morrow's outing inspired not only an "Every Play Counts" homage from Warriors beat writer Geoff Lepper but also a question from Bethlehem Shoals of Free Darko/Sporting Blog/Slam Magazine fame. (Shoals might be the only guy who writes more places than I did back before settling in here at BP.) At the Seattle launch party for The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac, which I'll be reviewing in the near future, Shoals (aka Nathaniel Friedman) wondered what kind of single-game performance is indicative of a player's true ability.

It becomes clear that it takes setting the bar pretty high--a lot higher than 37--to reach the point where scoring outbursts aren't a fluke. We quickly came up with Tony "Buckets" Delk living up to his nickname by scoring 50-plus, for example. How high do you have to go? What about other categories? Fortunately, Basketball-Reference.com offers some answers. In just one of the many invaluable features that make B-R.com such an incredible site, the Full Court section makes box scores dating back to 1986-87 searchable. Let's take a look.

We'll start with the 50-point mark, which has been reached by 55 players in 22 years. In addition to Delk, there have been plenty of non-stars who have had one great night. I had forgotten about Willie Burton, who with Philadelphia put up 53 against the Miami Heat a few weeks after he was released by Miami. You could have stumped me by noting Burton actually averaged 15.3 points per game for the 1994-95 76ers, who had a second player go for 50--Dana Barros scored an even 50 in March. Burton's feat was the more remarkable, though, since only one other time in his career did he score even 30 points in a game. In terms of extraordinary single-game efforts, Burton is probably tough to top.

Other surprising names on the 50-point list include Tracy Murray, Vernon Maxwell and Charles Smith. When it comes to guys scoring 50-plus twice, Jamal Crawford is far and away the odd man out.

Increasing the cutoff to 55 points removes most of the major flukes, but there are still some relatively lesser names amongst the superstars. Tony Parker joined that list just this month, while Michael Redd and Jerry Stackhouse also qualify. By the time you get to 60 points, however, pretty much only guys who lead the league in scoring need apply. The exception that proves the rule is Tom Chambers, who threw in 60 in March 1990 while playing for the Suns. Even Chambers was an awfully good scorer who averaged 27.2 a night that year.

If we go back quickly to Morrow's big game specifically, what stood out besides his point total was that it was also a double-double from the perimeter. How about this for a random group--guards (as listed by Basketball-Reference) who scored 35 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in a game. That's been done by 39 players. For the most part, it's not as surprising that these guys scored 35 points--Blue Edwards being the most prominent outlier--as that they pulled down so many boards. Michael Adams, who stood 5'10", grabbed double figures in rebounds four times in his career--but one of them happened to be on a night when he scored 45 points and grabbed 11 rebounds for a triple-double. I don't care how many possessions there were in that game (coached by Paul Westhead); that's an impressive stat line.

All right, let's try some other areas, starting with rebounds. I figured 20 would be an OK standard, but apparently overestimated its difficulty. One hundred sixty-seven players have ripped down 20 or more rebounds in a game, including Dean Garrett twice. Increasing to 25 boards cuts the list down to 36. Still, there are a lot of unusual names, and not just in the sense of specialists like Michael Cage. Charles Shackleford never averaged more than 6.8 rebounds a game, but he still got 25 once; Herb Williams pulled down 29 in January 1989 despite being an average rebounder at best over the course of his career.

Assists are an interesting topic because they overlap with another question I got a couple times in my most recent chat--is Ramon Sessions for real? (My answer: probably.) The Bucks' point guard first got on our radar when he handed out 24 assists in a game last April. Sessions is one of 29 guys to dish out 20-plus assists in our timeframe. For the most part, these guys are top assisters if not top players. The guy who sticks out is George McCloud, who had 22 assists for the Denver Nuggets in a game in March 2001. Better known as a sharpshooter, McCloud reached double figures in assists four times in his career. Injuries forced him to man the point in that game for 49 minutes of an overtime win over Chicago and history was made. The other interesting note about the 20-plus assists list is that Gary Grant topped the mark four times, as many as Steve Nash. I had no idea before looking it up that Grant had averaged 10 dimes a night in 1989-90, his sophomore season.

A handful of players--24 in all--have blocked 10 shots or more in a game. I was even in the arena for one of them, Calvin Booth rejecting 10 in 17 minutes against Cleveland in January 2004. That was surely the worst 10-block game ever, since Booth had two points on 1-of-4 shooting and failed to tally a rebound. Even Booth was always a great shot blocker on a per-minute basis, and this might be the first group that doesn't really have anything in the way of flukes.

Getting double figures in steals is much more unusual. Nine players have done so in the last 22 years, and only thief extraordinaire Alvin Robertson did it more than once. The exception here is Michael Finley, whose career high was six steals other than a 10-steal outing in January 2001.

Alright, how about a few more combinations? Let's start with the ever popular TRI-PLE DOU-BLES. 171 players have had triple-doubles since 1986-87, and a lot of those players haven't been especially good, all things considered. The least-accomplished of the group might be Anthony Bowie, and not just because his triple-double was dubious at best (Bowie's 10th assist came off an inbounds pass after he called a timeout in the closing seconds of a long-decided game, with Doug Collins putting his Pistons team on the other side of the floor in protest and Bowie's own coach, Brian Hill, condemning his actions). Other guys you might not guess had triple-doubles: Chris Duhon, Cedric Maxwell, Oliver Miller, Ken "Snake" Norman and Rodney White. Amongst guys who did it more than once, Winston Garland, Robert Pack and Rumeal Robinson were role players at best.

As a sidenote, and a reminder that not all triple-doubles are automatically great games, I went through and looked at the worst triple-double of that span based on the NBA Efficiency model (which is OK for single games if overmatched for rating players in general). In December 2004, Kobe Bryant got a triple-double of 10 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. What that doesn't tell you is that Bryant shot 3-of-12 from the field and committed eight turnovers. By this same method, the best triple-double in recent NBA history was Hakeem Olajuwon's pseudo-quadruple-double in March 1990 (listed as 29 points, 18 rebounds, 11 blocks, 10 assists and even five steals with nary a turnover, though the NBA does not recognize this game as a quadruple-double because Olajuwon was originally given nine assists).

Shoals' initial suggestion was to set the bar even higher--the quadruple-double and the 5x5 seemingly patented by Andrei Kirilenko in recent years. The former is simply too rare to qualify, having been done just four total times. The 5x5 has happened 14 times, and surprisingly two of them might be considered flukes. Would you figure Derrick Coleman for this group? A young Coleman pulled it off in January 1993. For Jamaal Tinsley, putting up five-spots in rebounds, assists and steals is unsurprising, but five blocks from the point took more work. His 5x5 was the only time he's ever had more than two blocks, and Tinsley is far and away the shortest player in league history with a 5x5.

Looking through a variety of criteria, a pattern emerges. Unless the bar is set ridiculously high, like 60 points or a quadruple-double, it's possible for non-stars to have big games or players to stand out in areas which are not usually strengths. It's hard to take too much value from a single game, even a big one like Morrow's apparent coming-out party. My takeaway is that this is part of the beauty of the 82-game NBA regular season. As much as it can seem like a grind at times, the great thing about a random game in the dog days of the year is that you never know when a journeyman is going to post a triple-double or come up with 20 rebounds or some other kind of noteworthy feat. On a single night, almost anything is possible.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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