The Biggest Fluke Scoring Performances in NBA History

First, I need to apologize for how long it’s been since I’ve written. I realize there’s not much point in having a blog if it’s going to go dark for almost three months. Unfortunately there were some things going on related to my career that needed my attention. Now that these things have been dealt with, though, I’m hoping to write on a more regular basis.

The other day on, Bill Simmons shared the following email from one of his readers:

Did Willie Burton lose the trophy for “Most Random Player to Score 50 in an NBA Game” to Terrence Ross? I’m waiting for Contract Year Rodney Stuckey 50 point game. It’s coming.
–Tony N., Richmond, Virginia

I know Tony N. was only being semi-serious, but that’s a great question, and it’s one I’d like to try to answer in this post.

One way to tackle this problem is to subtract the player’s career scoring average from his point total for a given game:

Pts – Avg

But this method gives the same score to Player A who averages 5.0 points per game and scores 30 (30 – 5.0 = 25.0) and Player B who averages 25.0 points per game and scores 50 (50 – 25.0 = 25.0). If we’re looking for fluke performances Player A’s effort is definitely a better fit than Player B’s.

Another approach is to find the percentage difference between the player’s point total for a game and his career scoring average:

(Pts – Avg) / Avg

Again, though, this method has some issues when it comes to identifying fluke performances

For example, Player A who averages 3.0 points per game and scores 12 points ((12 – 3.0) / 3.0 = 3.0) and Player B who averages 10.0 points per game and scores 40 points ((40 – 10.0) / 10.0 = 3.0) end up with the same score, even though almost everybody would call Player B’s output the bigger fluke.

Since neither of the approaches above work well alone, why not combine them? In other words:

(Pts – Avg)2 / Avg

In the first example, Player A receives a score of 125 ((30 – 5.0)2 / 5.0) while Player B receives a score of 25 ((50 – 25.0)2 / 25.0). Player A’s performance would be deemed the bigger fluke.

In the second example, Player A gets a score of 27 ((12 – 3.0)2 / 3.0) while Player B gets a score of 90 ((40 – 10.0)2 / 10.0). Player B’s effort is classified as a bigger fluke.

Let’s start with 50-point games, since that’s what motivated Tony N. to write to Simmons. Here are the five biggest fluke 50-point games in the regular season:

Name Date PTS Avg Score
Terrence Ross 2014-01-25 51 8.2 223
Tony Delk 2001-01-02 53 9.1 212
Walt Wesley 1971-02-19 50 8.5 203
Tracy Murray 1998-02-10 50 9.0 186
Willie Burton 1994-12-13 53 10.3 178

Some observations:

  • Terrence Ross comes out on top, but that should come with an asterisk, as Ross is just 23 years old and has made significant strides in this his second year in the NBA.
  • Tony Delk played in 545 regular season games and scored ZERO points in 55 of those games. Delk’s second-best scoring game came on December 22, 2001 when he had 27 points.
  • Walt Wesley was a 6’11” center who played for eight different teams during his 10 years in the NBA. His 50-point game came during the 1970-71 season with Cleveland, when Wesley averaged 17.7 points per game. That season was by far his best, although it should be noted that the Cavaliers were awful, finishing a league-worst 15-67.
  • Willie Burton’s 53-point game is an outlier, but did you know that he averaged 15.3 points per game that season and scored 20 or more points in 14 of his 53 games played?

Now let’s remove the 50-point requirement and look at all regular season games:

Name Date PTS Avg Score
Hank Finkel 1968-03-07 42 5.1 269
Acie Earl 1996-04-12 40 5.1 240
Reggie Jordan 1994-02-06 28 2.7 238
Terrence Ross 2014-01-25 51 8.2 223
Jeryl Sasser 2003-01-26 26 2.5 222

A few notes:

  • Hank Finkel’s second-highest point total was 35 points. When did it occur? The day after his career-high game. And get this: Finkel’s fourth-best scoring effort came on March 6, 1968, the day before his 42-point outburst.
  • In April 1996 Acie Earl averaged 17.4 points per game. He never averaged more than 7.4 points per game in any other month during his brief four-year career.
  • Jeryl Sasser’s 26-point game was the third and final double-figure game of his 82-game career.

As you can see from cases like Wesley’s and Finkel’s, sometimes a player just has a fluke season. So instead of using the player’s career scoring average, let’s use his season scoring average rather than his career scoring average.

With that change, here’s the new 50-point list:

Name Date PTS Avg Score
Terrence Ross 2014-01-25 51 10.6 155
Tony Delk 2001-01-02 53 12.3 135
Fred Brown 1974-03-23 58 16.5 105
Andre Miller 2010-01-30 52 14.0 103
Brandon Jennings 2009-11-14 55 15.5 101

And the new list for all games:

Name Date PTS Avg Score
Walter McCarty 2001-04-15 27 2.2 282
Austin Croshere 2007-01-30 34 3.7 246
Richie Frahm 2003-12-20 31 3.4 225
Jeryl Sasser 2003-01-26 26 2.6 212
Mark Jackson 2004-04-12 25 2.5 207

Some items of notes:

  • Three of the top five fluke 50-point games have come within the last five seasons.
  • Walter McCarty was held scoreless in 35 of his 60 games during the 2000-01 season. He only scored in double figures twice, with his second-highest game being an 11-point effort.
  • Mark Jackson’s 25-point outlier came in the next-to-last regular season game of his 17-year career. It was his only game in double figures that season.

All of that said, if I had to choose the biggest fluke scoring game in NBA history I think I would have to go with Tony Delk.

Scoring 20 or 30 points in an NBA game is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s not newsworthy — just about any player should be able to do that at least once given enough opportunities.

In fact, there have been 2,714 players who played in at least 50 regular season NBA games. Among those players:

  • 2,690 (99.12%) scored 10 or more points in at least one game.
  • 2,086 (76.86%) scored 20 or more points in at least one game.
  • 1,111 (40.94%) scored 30 or more points in at least one game.
  • 420 (15.48%) scored 40 or more points in at least one game.
  • 117 (4.31%) scored 50 or more points in at least one game.

As you can see, a little more than three-fourths of these players managed to score 20 points in at least one game, but less than one in 20 had a 50-point effort.

Some of the best scorers in NBA history were not able to join the exclusive 50-point club. Among the 56 players in NBA history who averaged at least 20.0 points per game (minimum 400 games played), there are 10 who did not score 50 points in a single game: Mark Aguirre, Paul Arizin, Walt Bellamy, Julius Erving, World B. Free, Dan Issel, Marques Johnson, Bob Lanier, Mitch Richmond, and Glenn Robinson.

In other words, a 50-point game is so rare that even some of the most prolific scorers in NBA history have failed to reach that mark.

I’ll leave you with two final pieces of trivia:

  • There are four NBA players who have scored 50 points in a game and had a career scoring average less than 10 points per game: Terrence Ross (8.2), Walt Wesley (8.5), Tracy Murray (9.0), and Tony Delk (9.1).
  • And there are just three NBA players who have scored 50 points in a game and had a season scoring average less than 15 points per game: Terrence Ross (10.6), Tony Delk (12.3), and Andre Miller (14.0).

Other than Ross — who as I mentioned earlier is just in his second season in the NBA — the only player to appear on both of those lists is Tony Delk.

5 thoughts on “The Biggest Fluke Scoring Performances in NBA History

  1. Fascinating stuff. Some of these are cases of an end-of-the-bench guy suddenly getting to start. Like Acie Earl, who got thrust into the lineup when Toronto’s starting center got injured, and inexplicably caught fire. Earl followed up his 40 point game with 26, 25, and 28 before the Raptors season came to a merciful end. That’s four games in 6 days where he averaged almost 30 points, and I’d wager he didn’t have another game in his career where he scored 20.

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