Wes Unseld and Wilt Chamberlain Share a Rare Place in NBA History
Wes Unseld spent his entire NBA career with one organization. As a player, coach and front-office member of the Washington Bullets, he worked tirelessly and dedicated his life to making an impact on and off the court. In fact, he became such an instant sensation that he joined Wilt Chamberlain in accomplishing a feat that no other NBA player has matched ever again.
Sadly, Wes Unseld passed away on Tuesday but not before leaving behind an incredible legacy on the game of basketball. So how exactly is the NBA Hall of Famer tied to The Big Dipper? Let’s take a closer look.
Wes Unseld joined the NBA after dominating at Louisville
Born in Louisville, Wes Unseld became one of the best athletes in the state of Kentucky. A high-school sensation who led his team to two state titles, he became a highly-coveted recruit. Ultimately, Unseld chose the University of Louisville over a compelling offer from the University of Kentucky. That decision turned out to be an excellent one.
After thoroughly destroying the competition on the school’s freshman team, Unseld became a three-year starter for the Cardinals. In his first varsity season, he averaged nearly as many rebounds per game (19.4) as he did points (19.9).
As a junior, he posted similar numbers with averages of 18.7 points and 19.0 rebounds. Unseld took home his first of back-to-back NCAA All-American honors. His senior season included a career-high 23.0 points per game. Impressively, he upped his field-goal percentage from just 53.7 as a junior to 61.3.
By the time he graduated, there was no doubt that Wes Unseld would become a top NBA draft pick. And as it turns out, he would make an immediate impact once he joined the pros.
Unseld and Wilt Chamberlain achieved rare MVP feat
Selected second overall in the 1968 NBA draft, Unseld joined a Baltimore Bullets franchise coming off a 36-46 season. That actually represented a monumental leap, as the Bullets won just 20 games in 1966-67.
But with their new 6-foot-7 center as the centerpiece, the Bullets exploded into a 57-25 squad that made the playoffs for just the third time in franchise history. Starting all 82 games, Unseld averaged 13.8 points and 18.2 rebounds on 47.6 percent shooting. The big man struggled at the free-throw line, which cost him a much higher scoring average.
However, thanks to his prolific play and his dramatic effect on turning Baltimore around, Wes Unseld took home NBA MVP honors as a rookie. He joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only player in league history to win NBA Rookie of the Year and league MVP honors in the same season.
Nearly a decade earlier, Chamberlain completely changed the NBA by averaging a league-high 37.6 points and 27.0 rebounds in his debut season. Of course, he’d go on to become arguably the most dominant force not named Michael Jordan.
Incredibly, not a single player has matched Unseld and Chamberlain in winning MVP honors as a rookie. That’s pretty remarkable considering the prolific one-and-done talents that have made the leap to the NBA over the last few decades.
Bullets lifer became a Hall of Famer
Strangely, Wes Unseld never topped his rookie-year performance. While he did average 16.2 points in his second season, his scoring numbers declined throughout the rest of his playing career. He also never matched the prolific rebounding rate that he set in his first season.
Still, the undersized center had just one season in which he didn’t average double-digit rebounds. He also established a reputation as a crafty passer, especially for his position. By the time he wrapped up his 984-game playing career, Unseld retired with career averages of 10.8 points, 14.0 rebounds, and 3.9 assists while shooting just over 50 percent from the field.
Though the Bullets relocated to Washington in the mid-70s, Wes Unseld never changed his colors. He remained a fixture within the organization well after his playing days ended. He spent seven years as the team’s head coach. Unfortunately, he posted a dismal 202-345 record.
One of the true legends of the game, Unseld got inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1988. Sixteen years later, he got enshrined in the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
Wes Unseld died on June 2 at the age of 74.
Statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference and Sports-Reference