Ranking Most Improbable NBA Scoring Outbursts of Last 20 Years
Which player is responsible for the most improbable scoring outburst in recent NBA history?
Toronto Raptors second-year guard Terrence Ross inspired that question by dropping a career-high 51 points against the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 25.
Luckily, thanks to Basketball-Reference, there's a scientific way to go about determining the answer.
Using Basketball-Reference's Game Finder tool, I went back through the last 20 years of NBA games to find every player who scored 50 or more points on a given night. To qualify for this list, the player's 50-point performance could be the only time in his career that he topped 40 points. (Otherwise, the 50-point night isn't all that improbable, is it?)
That narrowed the pool of candidates to eight.
From there, I used the Game Finder tool for each player to find his next-highest-scoring night. The 50-point efforts from players who routinely put up 30-plus points can't be considered as out-of-nowhere as those who never cracked 30 again. (And yes, one man holds that ignominious distinction.)
With those criteria in mind, here are the most improbable 50-point scorers over the past 20 years, starting with an honorable mention that just missed the cut.
Note: Unless otherwise noted, all statistics come from Basketball-Reference.com.
Honorable Mention: Tracy Murray (50 Points)
Date: Feb. 10, 1998
Career PPG: 9.0
Technically, Tracy Murray just misses the cut here.
The journeyman forward, who exploded for 50 points as a member of the Washington Wizards on Feb. 10, 1998, had one other 40-point game in his career.
While playing with the Toronto Raptors, Murray dropped 40 against the Denver Nuggets on March 18, 1996.
Since this list is only considering players who never cracked 40 besides their 50-plus-point game, he can't be included in the top eight.
Over his 12-year career, however, he only cracked the 30-point threshold a total of six times. That makes his scoring outburst against the Golden State Warriors in 1998 rather unexpected, to say the least.
On that night, Murray knocked down 18 of his 29 field-goal attempts, 5-of-10 threes and 9-of-10 free throws. It was one of only 13 games in which he attempted at least 20 shots from the field.
8. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (51 Points)
Date: Dec. 7, 1995
Career PPG: 14.6
In his final year with the Denver Nuggets, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf gave fans something to remember on Dec. 7, 1995.
Abdul-Rauf exploded for a career-high 51 points against the Utah Jazz that night, propelling the Nuggets to a 124-119 victory. He finished 17-of-27 from the field, 9-of-14 from three-point range and a perfect 8-of-8 from the free-throw line.
"I just went out and tried to be a little more aggressive offensively," Abdul-Rauf said after the game, per The Associated Press (via The Free Lance-Star). "I was surprised I was open a lot."
It was Abdul-Rauf's first 51-point game since high school, according to the AP. He scored 39 points earlier that season against the Dallas Mavericks and 36 points in late January against the Sacramento Kings, but never cracked the 40-point threshold during his nine-year NBA career.
Given his propensity for high-scoring nights during the 1995-96 season, he can't rank among the most unpredictable scoring outbursts in the past two decades. Just because it wasn't wildly improbable doesn't make it any less impressive, however.
7. Jermaine O'Neal (55 Points)
Date: Jan. 4, 2005
Career PPG: 13.3
The 2004-05 season was one of extremes for Jermaine O'Neal.
On Nov. 19, the former Indiana Pacer was involved in one of the ugliest incidents in recent NBA history, the so-called "Malice at the Palace." When two fans walked onto the court to confront Ron Artest, O'Neal ran over and punched one of them. (Per Grantland's oral history of the incident, the big man would have "killed" the fan had he not slipped in liquid immediately before delivering the blow.)
Commissioner David Stern initially suspended O'Neal for 25 games, but an arbitrator later reduced the suspension to 15 games. In his fifth game back, the Pacers center unleashed his frustrations on the court against the Milwaukee Bucks, erupting for a career-high 55 points while shooting 18-of-28 from the field.
"I'm going to take this box score home and put it up for my daughter or any other future kids," O'Neal said after the game, per The Associated Press (via ESPN.com). "I'll say, 'This is one of daddy's first 50-plus games.' "
Given the state of Indiana's depleted post-brawl roster, O'Neal's eruption wasn't nearly as unlikely as some of the other players featured here.
6. Damon Stoudamire (54 Points)
Date: Jan. 14, 2005
Career PPG: 13.4
How many teams can say they had a 50-point scorer… and lost?
On Jan. 14, 2005, Portland Trail Blazers guard Damon Stoudamire erupted for a career-high 54 points. Despite his herculean efforts, however, the Blazers lost, 112-106, to the then-New Orleans Hornets.
Stoudamire finished 20-of-32 from the field that night, including 8-of-16 from three-point range and a perfect 6-of-6 from the free-throw line. His 54 points remain a single-game franchise record for Portland nearly a decade later.
"The 54-point game from an individual standpoint was a pat on the back for me, but we lost," Stoudamire later told Jason Quick of The Oregonian. "The times I really remember were the strike-shortened season and the 1999-2000 team."
That night against the Hornets was the only time Stoudamire scored more than 36 points over his entire 13-year career. The diminutive guard dropped 30 points in the first half of that game alone.
Since this night remains his career-high output by 18 points, he ranks ahead of Abdul-Rauf and O'Neal in the improbable scorer rankings. However, since he notched at least 30 points in 28 games over his career, it wasn't all that stunning.
5. Brandon Jennings (55 Points)
Date: Nov. 14, 2009
Career PPG: 17.0
Brandon Jennings' inclusion here might come as a surprise to some. After all, he's a veritable chucker who's averaging 15.5 shots per game over his five-year career.
Three things make Jennings' 55-point night against the Golden State Warriors on Nov. 14, 2009, a legitimate stunner, though.
For one, it was only his seventh game in the NBA. The Warriors also held him scoreless for the entire first quarter.
Jennings' 55-point outburst was the most scored by any NBA rookie since Earl Monroe dropped 56 on Feb. 13, 1968, per the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Charles F. Gardner. He also became just the second player in the last five decades to score at least 50 points before turning 21, joining LeBron James in that exclusive club.
"I've never witnessed anything like that," said then-Bucks forward Hakim Warrick after the game, per Gardner. "He just really put the team on his back. Every shot he shot, you just knew it was going in."
While Jennings has cracked the 30-point threshold more than two dozen times since that night, he has never scored more than 37 points. If he were further into his NBA career, he'd rank higher here, but it wouldn't be a total shock to see him drop 40-plus at some point in the next few years.
4. Andre Miller (52 Points)
Date: Jan. 30, 2010
Career PPG: 13.6
Andre Miller won't go down in NBA history as a Carmelo Anthony-esque scorer. He'll be remembered primarily for his shrewdness as a floor general.
On Jan. 30, 2010, however, Miller rewrote that narrative for a night, exploding for a career-high 52 points against the Dallas Mavericks.
As noted by Ben Golliver of Blazer's Edge, Miller entered the game having scored 54 points in his previous five games combined. He erupted against Dallas, though, knocking down a franchise-record 22 of his 31 field-goal attempts. Even more amazingly, he only hit one three-pointer en route to his 52-point night.
"He's in here acting like he had 10 points," teammate LaMarcus Aldridge said after the game, per Jason Quick of The Oregonian. "I'm like, 'Andre, how about some emotion? How about some excitement?' He said 'We won.'"
That night remains the only time in Miller's 15-year career that he scored more than 37 points. The point guard's nonchalantness after his career-best scoring night only makes the accomplishment that much more enjoyable.
If the next player featured here weren't so young, Miller would rank among the top three in terms of improbable scoring outbursts. However, the No. 3 player's youth works to his advantage here, as no one could have foreseen his explosion.
3. Terrence Ross (51 Points)
Date: Jan. 25, 2014
Career PPG: 7.9
As a rookie, Toronto Raptors guard Terrence Ross averaged 6.4 points per game. During the first two months of the 2013-14 season, he notched 8.9 points a night.
That should help give the sophomore's 51-point explosion against the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 25, 2014, some context. In the six games prior to that contest, Ross notched a total of 48 points.
It became clear early on that Ross was in for a special night. He drained five three-pointers in the opening quarter, matching a franchise record, and knocked home two more before halftime for good measure.
The University of Washington product finished 16-of-29 from the field, 10-of-17 from three-point range and 9-of-10 from the charity stripe. It wasn't enough to propel his Raptors to victory, however, as 37 points from the Clippers' Jamal Crawford helped Los Angeles escape with a 126-118 win.
"You don't really realize what you're doing until it's all over," Ross said after the game, per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com).
In all likelihood, 20-, 30- and even 40-point games will become commonplace for Ross as he continues acclimating to the NBA. For now, however, he earns a top-three spot when it comes to unlikely scoring performances over the past 20 years.
2. Willie Burton (53 Points)
Date: Dec. 13, 1994
Career PPG: 10.3
During his one season as a Philadelphia 76er, Willie Burton unleashed one of the most memorable-yet-improbable scoring outbursts in NBA history.
Against the Miami Heat on Dec. 13, 1994, Burton exploded for a career-high 53 points, knocking down 12-of-19 shots, including 5-of-8 from three and a whopping 24-of-28 free-throw attempts.
For Burton, revenge was a dish best served piping hot that night. The Heat drafted him with the ninth overall pick in 1990, but waived him early in the 1994-95 season. Philadelphia signed him as a free agent five days after Miami let him go.
"I'm just grateful to be getting the opportunity to play," Burton said after the game, per the Associated Press (via the Los Angeles Times). "I'm really glad I'm here. I know I'll be playing here. It's a wonderful organization with a real good coach and a good team."
Burton only cracked the 30-point threshold one other time during his eight-year career. He averaged a career-high 15.3 points per game with Philadelphia that season, then bounced around to Atlanta, San Antonio and Charlotte before falling out of the league after the 1998-99 season.
According to NBA.com's Micah Hart, Burton has the fewest amount of career points scored for any 50-point scorer (not counting active players). Given the rarity of his scoring outbursts, only one other player in the past two decades managed exploded for an even more unlikely 50-point night.
1. Tony Delk (53 Points)
Date: Jan. 2, 2001
Career PPG: 9.1
What makes Tony Delk's 53-point night back on Jan. 2, 2001, the most improbable scoring outburst over the past 20 years?
How about the fact it was the journeyman's only 30-plus-point night in his 10-year career?
Delk, who touts a career scoring average of 9.1 points per game, shattered his previous career high (26 points) early in the third quarter against the Sacramento Kings. On the night, the Phoenix Suns guard shot 20-of-27 from the field, 13-of-15 from the free-throw line and missed the only three-pointer he attempted.
"I just felt good," said Delk after the game, per the Associated Press (via Sports Illustrated). "I think a lot of guys around the league can score like that when given the opportunity, and it was just one of those nights."
A career-high 34 points from Vlade Divac helped the Kings withstand Delk's eruption, as Sacramento beat Phoenix in overtime, 121-117. Even though Delk's squad didn't emerge with the win, the improbability of his 50-point night remains perfectly intact, however.
Had Delk ever dropped 30-plus points aside from this game, Burton likely would surpass him for the most improbable outburst of the past two decades. But since it's his only 30-plus-point night, the University of Kentucky product owns the most unforeseen scoring explosion in recent NBA history.