Measuring Up to Wilt Chamberlain May Require More Than Statistics

Several NBA players have delivered Chamberlain-like performances this season. But for some, he will always be untouchable.

Dick Garrett, a Milwaukee Bucks employee for more than two decades, watched Giannis Antetokounmpo toy with the Washington Wizards from a courtside folding chair at Fiserv Forum, where he has serviced fans for over two decades. “Fifty-five points and he was doing it so easily, like no one could even challenge him,” recalled Garrett. “I’m thinking, ‘Geez, he’s a man playing against boys.'” More than a half-century ago, he watched something similar, albeit from a superior vantage.

Garrett’s physical domination brought back memories of his inaugural NBA season with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1969-70. In a postseason run that ended with a Game 7 finals loss to the Knicks, he lobbed passes into the post from his backcourt position to the player best known as Wilt, in the famous one-name salute to greatness. This season, Antetokounmpo, among others, has drawn enough statistical parallels to Wilt Chamberlain — who scored a record 100 points in a game and averaged a mind-boggling 50 per game for a season — to make one wonder if the sport has reached its pinnacle of athletic achievement.

Alternatively, its video-game resemblance could be due to competitive engineering. Take advantage of the increased area of attack created by rampant 3-point shooting; open up driving lanes for physically gifted and skilled players like Antetokounmpo to score or locate open teammates on the perimeter. What you get is a slew of eye-opening individual stat lines in a league where team scoring has increased by about 15 points since a decade ago.


Garrett watched Antetokounmpo dominate the Minnesota Timberwolves with 43 points and 20 rebounds on December 30, only two nights after he had 45 points and 22 rebounds against the Bulls in Chicago. With seven assists in Chicago and five against Minnesota, Antetokounmpo became the first player since Wilt to have at least 40 points, 20 rebounds, and 5 assists in consecutive games.

Antetokounmpo, with his seven-foot size and elastic wingspan that can fool the eye into believing he is scratching the ceiling, is what Garrett refers to as the ringleader of a “big man revolution.” ADVERTISEMENT SKIP ADVERTISEMENT. It hasn’t only been the league’s tallest players — Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic in Denver, and Joel Embiid in Philadelphia — whose statistical binges have brought Chamberlain, who died in 1999, into the NBA conversation. When Luka Doncic, Dallas’ 6-foot-7 do-it-all Slovenian immigrant, slashed the Knicks for 60 points, 21 rebounds, and 10 assists in a comeback overtime win late last month, observers exclaimed that no one, not even Wilt, had ever produced a line like that.


Walt Frazier, the Hall of Fame guard who broadcasts Knicks games and previously played a backcourt with Garrett at Southern Illinois, knows why. “What you mostly see now are guys running up and down, dunking on people,” he added during a phone interview. “Only a few clubs focus on defense. When someone goes off, they do not double-team him. When someone walked in and dropped 40 on me, it was always, ‘Clyde got annihilated.’ Now Doncic scores 60, and no one knows who was protecting him.”

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