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NBA career::James Worthy

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NBA career Thanks to a shrewd front office deal and a lucky coin flip, Worthy began his pro career as the only #1 NBA draft pick to ever be selected by a reigning league champion. It boosted him onto a path that saw three championship rings, enshrinement in the Naismith Hall of Fame, and being named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History.

#1 pick

The Los Angeles Lakers had received the Cleveland Cavaliers 1982 first round draft pick in a 1979 exchange for Don Ford.<ref>{{#invoke:citation/CS1|citation |CitationClass=news }}</ref> The Cavs finished with the NBA's worst record in the 1981–82 season, leaving a coin toss to decide whether they or the worst record runner-up San Diego Clippers would get the number one pick in the upcoming draft. The Lakers won, the first and only time for a reigning league champion. They chose Worthy.

The lanky small forward immediately made an impact as a rookie, averaging 13.4 points per game and shooting a Laker rookie record .579 field goal percentage. With his speed, dynamic ability to score with either hand, and dazzling play above the rim, Worthy thrived in the Laker's high-octane "Showtime" offense. When not finishing fast breaks with his trademark Statue of Liberty dunks or swooping finger rolls, Worthy was also one of the best post players at his position, with a quick spin move and a deadly turnaround jumpshot. Unfortunately, his rookie year ended just when he was hitting his stride, breaking his leg on April 10, 1983 while landing improperly after trying to tap in a missed shot against the Phoenix Suns.<ref>Worthy injures leg, April 10, 1983 on YouTube</ref> He was still named to the 1983 All-Rookie First Team but missed the rest of the season and playoffs.

Back and healthy for the opening of the 1983–84 season, Worthy's effective play soon had him replacing All-Star and fan favorite Jamaal Wilkes in the starting line-up. The Lakers dominated throughout the Western Conference Playoffs and faced the Boston Celtics in the Finals. Late in Game 2 Worthy made an errant crosscourt pass that was picked off and taken in for the game-tying score. The Lakers dropped the game in overtime, but pushed the series to the limit before being bested in seven games.

"Big Game James"

With hard driving coach Pat Riley demanding nothing but a championship ring the Lakers were on a mission of redemption in 1985. Once again they met the Celtics in the Finals, this time decided in LA's favor on the famed parquet floor of the Boston Garden. Along the way Worthy became "Big Game James".

During the play-off run to title Worthy emerged as a feared clutch performer. He averaged 21.5 points per game on 62.2% shooting in the playoffs, and his inspired play and 23.7 points per game against the Celtics in the Finals<ref>{{#invoke:citation/CS1|citation |CitationClass=web }}</ref> confirmed him as one of the league's premier players. A scratched cornea in a March game against the Utah Jazz also cemented his image as a begoggled star, forcing him to wear eye protection the rest of his career.

The 1985–86 season held tremendous promise for the Lakers, which all disappeared in a preternatural tip in 1986 NBA Playoffs by 7' 4" Houston Rockets star Ralph Sampson. Worthy, however, excelled, beginning the first of seven consecutive All-Star appearances.

It was all champagne and rings again in 1986–87, with what many regard as one of the NBA's all-time great teams<ref>The 7 Greatest NBA Offenses of All Time: "The best offensive team of the Showtime Lakers era — and the best offense in NBA history"</ref> sprinting to another NBA title over the Celtics. Worthy was at the top of his game, averaging 23.6 points per game in the playoffs.

Once again Riley drove the Lakers hard in 1987–88, and once again they celebrated a championship, the first back-to-back titles in the NBA since '68-'69 Celtics. During the regular season Worthy averaged 19.7 points and scored a career-high 38 points against the Atlanta Hawks. During the Finals against the Pistons Worthy once again excelled as Big Game James, picking up the slack for an aging Jabbar and averaging 22 ppg, 7.4 rebounds, and 4.4 assists in the series.<ref>{{#invoke:citation/CS1|citation |CitationClass=web }}</ref> A 28-point, 9 rebound Game 6 and explosive 36/16/10 triple double that sealed victory in Game 7 of the Finals cinched him the NBA Finals MVP award.

A fourth ring beckoned in 1988–89, but it was not to be. With Riley clamoring for a "Three-peat", the Lakers marched through the regular season and met the Pistons for an encore in the Finals. With Abdul-Jabbar playing his last games and Magic Johnson and Byron Scott missing three due to injuries even Worthy at his play-off best was not nearly enough. In spite of averaging a career Finals high 25.5 ppg,<ref>{{#invoke:citation/CS1|citation |CitationClass=web }}</ref> including a career high 40 points trying to stave off elimination in Game 4, the Lakers were swept in four.

Even on Lakers teams dominated by fellow Hall of Fame and NBA Top 50 teammates Jabbar and Magic Johnson, Worthy stood out during their years together. Unmatched on the fast break, he electrified "Showtime"-era audiences with his dunks, and his lightning-quick first step in the paint was the Lakers' #2 offensive option. His highlight reel contributions to the team's 1985, 1987, and 1988 championships were an exclamation point on LA's 1980s basketball dynasty.

The Lakers ran hot again in 1989–90, their 63-19 record the NBA's best. In spite of stepped up performances by both Johnson (25.2 ppg) and Worthy (24.2 ppg) in the play-offs, LA fell in the Conference finals to the Phoenix Suns.

It was back to the Finals again 1991, thanks to Worthy's team-leading and career high 21.4 ppg and the addition of Tarheel frontcourt star Sam Perkins. But it wasn't enough against a hot Chicago Bulls squad led by the pair's old Carolina teammate, Michael Jordan. The Lakers fell in five games.

It would be Worthy's last chance at a fourth ring. Magic Johnson sudden retirement in November 1991 threw the Lakers franchise for a loop. Injuries and high mileage spelled the end for Worthy. A high ankle injury during the 1991 playoffs and season-ending knee surgery in 1992 had robbed much of his quickness and leaping ability. Worthy would have one more noteworthy performance left in him in Game 2 of the first round of the 1993 NBA Playoffs against the Phoenix Suns, hitting a clutch three point shot during the final stretch, giving the Lakers a 2-0 series lead against the Suns, who had the best record in the regular season. After struggling with knee pain in the 1994–95 preseason, Worthy announced his retirement in November 1994, after 12 seasons in the NBA.

Worthy played in 926 NBA regular season games, averaging 17.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and three assists per game.<ref>{{#invoke:citation/CS1|citation |CitationClass=web }}</ref> He played in 143 play-off games and averaged 21.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game and had a 54.4 field goal percentage. In 34 NBA Finals games he averaged 22.2 pts per game on 53% shooting. He ranks sixth all-time in Lakers team scoring (16,320), third all-time in team steals (1,041) and seventh all-time in team field goal percentage (.521). Voted one of the top 50 NBA players of all time in 1996, Worthy was not a first-ballot inductee into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000, his first year of eligibility. However, he was later inducted into the Hall in 2003. His jersey No. 42 was retired by the Lakers.


James Worthy sections
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