The Twenty-foot Lay-up

Gatinho —  September 14, 2006

The ball would swing back behind his left ear and, in a circular motion, move back behind his head, held high above his wiry 6′ 6″ 190 lb. frame. A slight bend of the knees and, without ever passing the crown of his head, it was gone. Released skyward, still moving, in a slow motion, circular fashion before inevitably touching the bottom of the twine.

Sounds awkward; looked smooth.

“(Wilkes) had a way about him that didn’t look like he was doing something, and then you look at the stat sheet and he’s got 29 points. Jamaal used to wind up, but (his shot) was like snow falling off a bamboo leaf, it was so smooth.”

Pat Riley comparing Wilkes to Tayshaun Prince

Silk was his name, and silently assassinating teams was his game. His play was unassuming and in no way physically imposing but upon checking the box score at the end of the game, he’d have an efficient 22 points, 6 or 7 rebounds, and a handful assists.

A member of a championship team at every level, he was born in Berkley but later migrated to the Southern part of the state where he would be an All America Prep at Santa Barbara High School. From then on in his career, he was never simply a spoke but also never the hub.

First he was placed alongside arguably the best collegiate ever, Bill Walton.

John Wooden when asked to describe the perfect recruit:

“I would have the player be a good student, polite, courteous, a good team player, a good defensive player and rebounder, a good inside player and outside shooter,” Wooden told the New York Post in 1985. “Why not just take Jamaal Wilkes and let it go at that.”

When the Wizard knocks on your door, you accept the invitation to the quest.

Jamaal, then Keith Wilkes, was a starter on a team that would win 88 in a row. The freshman battled legendary high-flyer David Thompson to aid Walton and UCLA in cutting down the nets in 1972, a climax to the first of two undefeated seasons.

In his pre-Laker incarnation, he was drafted 11th overall and captured the Rookie of the Year award and his first ring as a member of the 1975 Warriors’ team. But, as part of a developing theme, there he was along side Hall of Famer Rick Barry.

It was as a Warrior that his Islamic beliefs would lead him to change his name to Jamaal Abdul-Lateef, though he would continue to be referred to as Jamaal Wilkes.

He would sign with the Lakers as a free agent in 1979, where two future HOFers would be there to greet him.

Magic Johnson’s rookie performance in the 1980 Finals has been heralded as a mythological big game performance. A jaw dropping 42 points, 15 rebounds and 7 dimes while, say it with me, playing all five positions…

But who remembers that Wilkes had 37 points and 10 rebounds in that pivotal game 6?

“Tied 60-60 at the half, Wilkes got 16 in the third quarter…Wilkes drove the lane, drew a foul and made a three-point play…The Lakers were up by seven only 1:16 after the timeout.”

Wilkes was incredulous after capturing his second NBA title, “I thought our chances of winning (Game 6) were 10% to 15%,” he said.

He combined with Magic to score 79 of the teams 123 points.

Throughout his collegiate and pro career he was a steadying force but lucky to be placed alongside some the game’s elite. A solid second (or third) option. Way more than a minute eating role player, he garnered two All-NBA defensive team honors. Those long arms would help the Lakers as they ran a relentless half court trap when they would again meet and beat the Sixers in 1982.

Three times he would play in the All-Star Game. His final one played in 1983 at the Fabulous Forum, where he bobbed his head to Marvin Gaye’s daring interpolation of the Star Spangled Banner.

He was deftly efficient on the offensive end. So much so, Chick Hearn took to marking his patented baseline jumpers, calling them good at the zenith of their arc, and dubbing them “Twenty foot lay-ups.”

In his heyday he posted an eFG 53%, averaged 21.1 points per in ’81-82, and 18 per game for his career.

He would be unceremoniously usurped by another future Hall of Famer out of North Carolina, later known as Big Game James, and would end up earning another ring in 1985 while watching from the bench injured. After an 18 game stint with the Clippers, he would retire.

Jamaal Wilkes: a Laker I miss.