James Edwards: The NBA’s Next Super Giant? 1979

[James Edwards is mostly remembered today as the stoic seven-footer with the fu Manchu who came off the bench for the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons of the late 1980s. But Edwards had four previous NBA stops before arriving in Motown, the most ballyhooed of which was with the Indiana Pacers (1978-1982). In fact, Slick Leonard, the Pacers’ not-so-smooth head coach, was convinced that Edwards might just be the league’s next great seven-foot superstar. 

In this article, wire service reporter Hank Lowenkron hops aboard the Edwards’ bandwagon to explains why Leonard might just have a point. The article is long and detours at the end into parsing Indiana’s rebuilt roster and future prospects. If you’re a Pacers fan, it’ll be a fun read to the final sentence. If not, the top of the story should still grab you. And just for the record, despite Lowenkron’s enthusiasm for Edwards and the Pacers heading into the 1978-79 season, Indiana would finish at 38-44 and miss the playoffs yet again. 

As the next few seasons would also show, Leonard probably overhyped his promising young center with the excellent fadeaway. Edwards never averaged more than 16.7 points and 8.5 rebounds per game as a Pacer. Neither did he land on an All-Star team or earn an All-Pro mention. But Edwards was in no way a bust either, and other NBA teams chased him in free agency during the spring of 1982. The Pacers, then in rough financial shape, had to let Edwards go to Cleveland, where he battled a few injuries and was soon dealt to Phoenix and later landed in Motown. 

As a quick aside, if NBA history had unfolded a wee bit differently, Edwards could have just as easily spent most of his career in Indianapolis, as Leonard had suggested. In 1979, the well-heeled Dr. Jerry Buss, now of NBA legend, came oh-so close to buying the Pacers. “The discussions reportedly are down to the fine print wording and the sale should happen . . . within the next two weeks,” wrote the Indianapolis News in March 1979. The talks stretched through April, and, just before the NBA Board of Governors gave its approval for the sale of the Pacers on May 5, Buss backed out to the deal to purchase his hometown Lakers instead. And the rest is NBA history.]

****

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Dave Cowens, Willis Reed, and Bill Russell have all proven the value of a strong center to a team seeking a National Basketball Association championship. However, Reed and Russell have been retired for some time. Abdul-Jabbar is now 31, Walton has had a series of physical ailments, and Cowens has appeared to lose the drive that established him as a superstar earlier in his career.

So, a key question around the NBA these days is who the next strong center will be and how his performance will affect his team. Now, Bobby Leonard of the Indiana Pacers thinks the answer is 7-foot-1 James Edwards, whom he acquired from Los Angeles last December in a controversial trade that sent Adrian Dantley to the Lakers.

If Edwards produces as Leonard expects, a lot of NBA scouts may be hiding in the woods to avoid answering questions from their bosses. Edwards didn’t get selected in last year’s college draft until the third round.

“I decided to look to our future,” Leonard says when asked why he gave up Dantley, a popular former Notre Dame star who was leading the team in rebounding and was the NBA’s third-leading scorer at the time of the trade.

“I’ve become convinced you’ve got to have a strong man at center to compete in the NBA. In Edwards, I saw a 7-foot-1, 22-year-old, 230-pound rookie who was loaded with potential and raw talent. I felt we could develop him into the kind of center who can dominate offensively, defensively, or both.”

Leonard said he was extremely pleased with Edwards’ progress last season and figures the former University of Washington star can lead Indiana into the playoffs during the 1978-79 campaign.

Edwards, the 46th player selected in the 1977 college draft, was picked by the Lakers to back-up the great Abdul-Jabbar. However, he was quickly pressed into service when the Lakers’ star broke a bone in his hand punching Kent Benson in the opening game of the season.

Edwards made a quick impression on Leonard in his first pro start. The Lakers’ rookie spoiled the season-opener for Indiana with a 25-point performance against the Pacers. “Right then, I knew Edwards was a comer,” remarked Leonard, who says that by the end of last season Edwards was “the best rookie center in the league.”

“I picked up a lot of fouls during my rookie season, which cut into my playing time and slowed my adjustment,” said Edwards. “A lot of those calls were stupid plays on my part, but many were calls officials made against me only because I as a rookie.

“I look for things to be a lot different this season. I know my opponents a lot better, the officials know me, and I have a better idea of what is legal and what you can’t do in NBA play. There’s a lot more contact allowed than in college, but you have to know when to use your body.”

Edwards came into the NBA after averaging 20.9 points per game in his senior year, competing in the tough Pacific Eight Conference. He also averaged 10.4 rebounds per outing as a senior. However, some say a poor performance in postseason all-star action resulted in his being available so late in the NBA draft.

“Yes, I was very surprised I wasn’t picked up earlier in the draft,” Edward said. “I think that gave me a little extra incentive early in the year.”

The rookie was the Lakers’ No. 2 scorer with a 17.1 average when he was traded in mid-December. He was also averaging 8.2 rebounds per game. In 58 games with Indiana, Edwards averaged 15.4 points per game.

The No. 1 draft pick in 1977 was another center, former Indiana All-American great Kent Benson. And it was against Benson that Edwards recorded a season-high of 33 points in March. “You can’t really compare Edwards with Benson and say we made a mistake,” said Milwaukee coach Don Nelson. “Benson had his physical problems. Yes, I think Edwards has a good future ahead of him.

“It’s easy to deal in hindsight. We weren’t that interested in Edwards because we had a man (Benson) we considered a better player,” he added.

Perhaps Nelson should have talked to another of his team’s first-round draft selections, former UCLA star Marques Johnson. “He (Edwards) was the best center I played against in college. I can’t understand why he didn’t go in the first round,” said Johnson, who didn’t have to be reminded that he played against Benson in college.

Some other centers who were picked ahead of Edwards in the 1977 draft were Jack Sikma by Seattle, Wayne Rollins by Atlanta, Tom LaGarde by Denver, and Jeff Wilkins by San Antonio. But when the 1977-78 season was history, it was Edwards who was named as the top rookie center in the league by Basketball Digest.

Edwards really showed his potential in the late stages of the season, averaging more than 19 points per game over the last two months. He was in double figures 16 of his last 17 games, including the 33-point performance he had against Benson.

One of his strong games came in Seattle when he had 26 points and 13 rebounds against the team that just missed winning the NBA championship last season. Many of those points came with Marvin Webster at center for the SuperSonics.“I had played against Webster before, and I knew I could take him,” said Edwards with confidence showing all over his face.

That same confidence is evident as he and Leonard eagerly look toward the 1978-79 season. “I’m feeling more confident about my whole game,” said Edwards. “I’ll be going to the boards better this year. It took me some time to get my rhythm and learn to relax.”

“I’m tickled to death with Jim’s progress,” said Leonard. “Sure, he’s got some learning ahead of him, but if he can come half as far this year as he did as a rook, I’ll be delighted. He’s a good passer, and he’ll always be able to score points. He has a great touch for a big man.”

Bobby “Slick” Leonard

Leonard compares Seattle’s accomplishments of last season to his goals for the coming campaign. “They made a deal to get a big man (Webster), then they drafted Sikma, signed Gus Williams as a free agent, and picked up John Johnson. They didn’t finish at .500 the year before and then missed taking the whole bushel of corn by one game,” he said.

“Edwards can help us do the same thing this season,” he adds.

Seattle coach Lenny Wilkens isn’t surprised Edwards is proving so valuable in Indiana’s plans. He had the chance to see Edwards play frequently in college at Seattle, when he was the club’s director of player personnel. 

“We thought he was a good player,” said Wilkens. “We didn’t select him because we were looking for a player who could play at both forward and center. Sikma filled that order, while Edwards is a pure center. If we’d wanted someone for just center, I think he would have been in a Seattle uniform today.”

“I was more impressed with James than most people because I saw him more. We were surprised he went in the third round.”

Edwards definitely needs to lower his foul total because he’s of no value to Indiana on the bench. Last season, he fouled out of 12 games and was ejected from another after picking up a pair of technicals. And even in games where he didn’t foul out, Leonard frequently had to keep his center on the bench to save him for further action.

If Edwards stays on the court, he’ll probably have little trouble raising his average of approximately 7.5 rebounds per game. But the big stride forward Leonard would like is more blocked shots. He had less than one per game last season.

“The thing to keep in mind about Edwards is that he joined our team as we were going through a transition period,” said Leonard. “He wasn’t the only new guy on the block. Most of our players were together for the first time, and only one of our starting five (Danny Roundfield) had been with us from the previous campaign.”

The starting five of Edwards, Roundfield, Mike Bantom, Earl Tatum, and Ricky Sobers, which Leonard used on a regular basis late in the season, was one of the youngest to perform in league history. “It took some time for us all to get settled,” said Sobers, who joined the Pacers after two seasons with Phoenix before the 1977-78 season began. “Then there was the trade that brought Edwards here, the sending of John Williamson to the Nets, and the arrival of Ron Behagen.

“I think it was March before be really felt we could play and feel we knew what to expect from each other.”

Indiana finished with a 31-51 record. Nine of those victories came in the final five weeks of the season, including two weeks with four on the road, where Indiana has really had its problems in the NBA. The Pacers won only 10 games on the road all season.

“We’re not the only team in the league that had trouble winning on the road,” said Leonard. “The traveling in the NBA gives a definite advantage to the home team, and it’s especially hard for a young club like ours.”

“A lot of the problem in compiling a good road record is adjusting to the traveling,” said Edwards. “Sometimes, you don’t arrive in the city until the early morning hours, and you try to sleep during the day. I didn’t find it that easy last season. It was a major change from our routine in college.

“Also, there’s a lot more games during an NBA season. I feel my strong finish last season shows I can last for an entire season and still have something left at the end. Now, I’m looking forward to having the season go even longer. Our club should make the playoffs this season.”

Look for Edwards to shoot more often during the 1978-79 campaign. His field-goal percentage as a rookie was a very respectable .450 with Indiana and .453 for the season. “There were times last season when I found myself thinking about taking a shot,” he says. “Well, in the NBA, you can’t do that. If you stop for even a fraction of a second, you give men like Abdul-Jabbar, Walton, Bob Lanier, and Cowens time to adjust. I’m not going to concentrate on shooting more this season, but I think it will come automatically as a I feel more comfortable and confident.”

The Pacers lost last season’s leading rebounder when Danny Roundfield became a free agent and signed with the Atlanta Hawks. “I want to get a lot more defensive rebounds this year. Our club figures to be quicker this season. If I can get the defensive rebound and work on making the outlet pass, we’ll be able to fastbreak a lot more than we did last season,” said Edwards.

The acquisition of guard Johnny Davis from Portland in exchange for Indiana’s No. 1 draft pick may be of special help to Edwards. “I was very impressed with Edwards last season,” said Davis after joining the Pacers. “He’s young and is going to be better. I think that my experience playing with Bill Walton will help me work with him.”

Davis and the other Pacers represent an almost-complete rebuilding effort by Leonard since the team became a member of the NBA. Reserves Len Elmore, Mike Flynn, and Steve Green were the only carryovers still with the team this summer from the squad that played its first NBA game in October of 1976.

“We have tried to build and become less competitive. Not having a first-round draft pick our first year in the league hurt us,” said Leonard. “Then when we learned we weren’t able to win, we decided to build from the bottom-up.”

Some of Leonard’s deals were heavily criticized in Indianapolis, where it took a month-long season ticket campaign, capped by an overnight telethon to keep the team going in the summer of 1977. “I can’t worry about those who don’t like a deal I make,” he said. “You deal for various reasons. Sometimes, it’s to build for the future.

“I’ll agree that we could use the scoring of Adrian Dantley, but in the long run, we are better off. And don’t forget, we got Earl Tatum in the same deal. If you look at what he and Edwards did for this team last season and compare it to what Dantley and Dave Robisch did, you’ll see we come out ahead. But, as far as I’m concerned, this deal wasn’t made for one year. Edwards and Tatum could be regulars for us for a long time.”

Leonard’s first draft pick, Kentucky’s Rick Robey, also should help make the team a contender for the playoffs. “Robey knows what it feels like to be a winner,” said Leonard. “He’ll fit into our team quite well.”

Leonard has built a team without a superstar, figuring balance will make the team a stronger club. Six of last season’s players averaged in double figures, headed by an 18.2 mark compiled by Ricky Sobers. Nine different players led the team’s scoring in individual games. “Balance is a key. If you have five players on the court capable of scoring 20 points in a game, there’s no place for the defense to relax. I think we reached that point with our starters last season, and we’ve worked on building the depth since then.”

Here’s a quick look at some of the personnel Leonard has assembled this summer to join Edwards in the teams’ bid for the playoffs:

Ricky Sobers

Ricky Sobers, a 25-year-old guard who was a first-round draft pick by Phoenix in 1975. Leonard acquired the former Nevada Las Vegas star in exchange for Don Buse last summer. Sobers proved to be a dependable performer, scoring in double figures in each of Indiana’s final 33 games and in 76 of 79 outings. He also led the club in minutes, field goals made and attempted, free throws made, free throw percentage, assists, and steals.“It doesn’t matter to Ricky if he scores or picks up an assist,” said Leonard. “Sobers to Edwards is going to be a familiar saying around the league.”

Sobers was third in the league in assists last season and seventh in steals. He was one of only seven players in the league to compile over 300 field goals, 300 free throws, 300 assists, and 300 rebounds. The 6-foot-3 product of the New York City playgrounds was joined by Rick Barry, George Gervin, Dan Issel, Phil Smith, Randy Smith, and David Thompson.

Mike Bantom, another first-round draft pick. The 6-foot-9 forward was picked by Phoenix in 1973. A five-year NBA veteran, Bantom was the only Pacer to appear in all of last season’s games. Compiled a 15.3 scoring average last season, while establishing new career highs in nearly every statistical category. Was Indiana’s second-best field goal shooter and second-best rebounder last season. His 38-point effort against Milwaukee was the best by a Pacer last season.

“Defense is what wins in the NBA,” said Leonard, “and that’s why I’m so high on Mike. He was our best defensive forward and had the job of guarding guys like Julius Erving, David Thompson, and Rick Barry all year. It’s something when you have to work hard on defense like Mike and still give a strong performance off the boards and on offense.”

Earl Tatum, a 6-foot-4 ½ former Marquette star who can play as a small forward or big guard. Moved into the starting lineup at guard when the Pacers sent John Williamson to the Nets and was in double figures 34 of 37 games after that. Finished with a 14.3 scoring average, had the team’s third-best field goal percentage, and was second in free-throw shooting and assists.

Then there’s the 6-foot-10 All-American from Kentucky, Rick Robey. He fits in well with Leonard’s type of club and accepts his role well, whether it be as a scorer, rebounder, or defensive performer. “Placing Rick on a frontline with Edwards and Bantom makes us competitive. In fact, I think that after a while I’ll match that frontline against most of those you see in the NBA,” said Leonard.

“I’m excited about pro basketball,” said Robey. “In college, I used a lot of offensive patterns and set a lot of picks. As a pro, I’ll be able to take a lot more 15- to 18-foot shots.”

Leonard can also use Robey at center to relieve Edwards, giving the Pacers more depth than they’ve had in a long time. “Last season, I thought I could compete with nearly everyone with our front five against theirs,” said Leonard. “But when I had to go to the bench, I was in trouble.”

Like the rest of the Wildcats, Robey played an aggressive overall game. In averaging over 14 points per game, the All-American hit more than 63 percent of his shots from the field as a senior and made more than 70 percent of his free throws.

Robey should love the physical aspect of the NBA, which allows aggressive play upfront. Ever since he put on a college uniform as a freshman on a team that finished second to UCLA in the NCAA final, Robey has lived with the reputation of staking a claim underneath the basket and intimidating the opposition.

He and former teammate Mike Phillips became known as King and Kong during their college career. Robey and Edwards may, with experience, produce the same type of reputation in the NBA.

Leonard and Pacer fans, who have lived through some hard times during the first two NBA seasons, hope it happens.

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