The 10 Most Surprising 50-Point Games in NBA History

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistApril 12, 2020

The 10 Most Surprising 50-Point Games in NBA History

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    Over the course of NBA history (regular season and playoffs), 150 players have combined to produce 564 50-point games.

    Plenty weren't terribly surprising—Wilt Chamberlain almost made them routine—but a handful came seemingly out of nowhere.

    To determine which were the least expected, each of those 150 players were ranked in the following categories:

    • total number of 50-point games
    • career scoring average
    • single-season peak scoring average

    Then, all 150 players were sorted by the average of their ranks. The players who come out the worst in that exercise gave us our most surprising 50-point games.

    And don't worry: everyone at the bottom of the list only had one 50-point game.

    But before we dive into those, let's take a peek at the top 10 (or, what we might call the least surprising players to produce 50-point games):

    1. Wilt Chamberlain
    2. Michael Jordan
    3. Elgin Baylor
    4. James Harden
    5. Kobe Bryant
    6. Allen Iverson
    7. LeBron James
    8. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
    9. Kevin Durant
    10. Rick Barry

    Now, for the surprises...

10. Mo Williams

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    Mo Williams flirted with 50 on a couple of occasions, scoring 44 on Feb. 11, 2009, and 43 on Jan. 27, 2009. He finally broke through as a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves six years later, when he dropped 52 on the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 13, 2015.

    That mark stood as a franchise record until Karl-Anthony Towns scored 56 in 2018.

    "If I told you someone scored 50 points in an NBA game last night, you would probably guess 100 or so names—incorrectly—before finally giving up," Dan Cahill wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times. "And when I informed you it was Mo Williams, you would likely walk away shaking your head in utter disbelief."

    Williams' career scoring average entering that season was 13.3. He was in the midst of his age-32 campaign. Prior to that game, his average that season was 11.0.

    That level of a random scoring outburst from a 6'1" veteran in the twilight of his career was unbelievable. And it feels even less likely when you consider the Pacers had 2014-15's No. 7 defense.

    Williams put on a mid-range clinic against that Indiana defense. Six of his buckets came from three. One was at the rim. The other 12 were all over the range between the paint and the three-point line. And plenty of the jumpers were contested. This just felt like a 48-minute hot streak.

    "You are just in a zone; you don't really see anybody," Williams said after the game, per BALLISLIFE's David Astramskas. "You just go back to the places when you are in the gym by yourself with your own trainer. You are just shooting shots, and it doesn't matter where the defense is at."

9. Vernon Maxwell

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    Like Williams, Maxwell came close to the 50-point threshold a couple of times. Unlike Williams, he actually got there pretty early in his career.

    Maxwell scored 51 on the Cleveland Cavaliers on Jan. 26, 1991. And the wildest part of this performance was that 30 of those points came in the fourth quarter alone.

    Described by his coach, Don Chaney, as a "streaky shooter," Maxwell was as locked in as he's ever been during that game. He went 14-of-25 from the field, but the biggest reason he eclipsed 50 was all the trips to the line. He went 19-of-22 from the line (his second-highest total for free-throw attempts in his career was 16).

    The incessant desire he showed in getting to the line was symbolic of the competitiveness he brought throughout his career.

    "He's the most competitive player I've ever coached," Chaney said, per Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "If I was in a foxhole, I'd rather have him at my back than anybody."

    Sometimes, that competitiveness got Maxwell in trouble. He had almost as many games in which he took 10 shots and shot worse than 30 percent (142) as he had games with at least 10 shots and a 50-plus field-goal percentage (155).

    But on this night, the competitiveness and streakiness combined for a perfect storm of 51 points.

8. Caris LeVert

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    Caris LeVert has appeared in 212 playoff and regular-season games. He scored 20 or fewer points in 184 (86.8 percent) of them. Before March 3, 2020, his career high was 37.

    On that night, he scored 37 in the fourth quarter and overtime alone.

    "That 50 was beautiful, Vert," teammate Kevin Durant tweeted after the game. "Thank you for that masterpiece."

    Earlier in the season, point guard Kyrie Irving alluded to the team's need for new talent to take them to the level of legitimate contenders. LeVert's performance suggested the help may come from within the organization.

    "LeVert is showing he has that upside—star potential in a vacuum," Dan Favale wrote for Bleacher Report. "His range of outcomes changes everything for a Nets organization that finds itself brushing up against an uncertain future despite signing two superstars over the summer."

    Performances like this won't become the norm, but LeVert is 25 and still has another year or two of development. A 50-point game could become, at the very least, a little less surprising.

    And if he does keep trending in that direction, the Brooklyn Nets' barely-open title window (health of both Durant and Irving has to be considered, at this point) may let just a little more air in.

7. Andre Miller

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    Ask most NBA fans what they remember about Andre Miller's game, and you're likely to get answers about the pace at which he played, his passing and the generally old-school feel of everything he did on a basketball court.

    The chances of anyone responding, "Oh, he was a great scorer," are slim to none.

    But for one night, on Jan. 30, 2010, he was. Miller went an unfathomable 22-of-31 from the field against the Dallas Mavericks that night. His previous career high for shots made in a game was 15.

    And the 22 he dropped against Dallas was the season high for the entire NBA, as well as a franchise record for the Portland Trail Blazers.

    "I just wanted to stay aggressive," Miller said postgame. "I didn't look at it as scoring the ball, but just going out and making plays and being the point guard. The shots came, and since they were going in, I kept shooting."

    He peppered in a few makes from the short mid-range, but the bulk of Miller's damage that night was done inside. He went a ridiculous 11-of-15 at the rim.

    It was much like the older guy at your pickup game, slowly but surely making his way to the bucket and hitting a variety of finishes over, under and around bigger defenders.

6. Walt Wesley

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    David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

    Walt Wesley never made an All-Star team. Of his nine-plus seasons (he appeared in just one game in year 10), only two featured a double-digit scoring average. His 47.1 career true shooting percentage was three points below the league average of the time.

    But on Feb. 19, 1971, Wesley came out of nowhere to score 50 points on 20-of-34 shooting against the Cincinnati Royals.

    From that performance through the end of the season, the Cleveland Cavaliers big man averaged 24.1 points, but that stretch wound up proving an anomaly. From the next season through the end of his career, Wesley averaged 6.6 points.

5. Terrence Ross

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    Seemingly random 50-point outbursts from unexpected sources may become a bit more commonplace in today's three-heavy game.

    Terrence Ross' 51-point performance against the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan. 25, 2014, is a striking example of that.

    Ross had just averaged 6.4 points as a rookie in 2012-13. His average heading into the 51-point game was 9.3. Then, suddenly, he exploded for 10 threes in a single game, tied for the season high that season.

    After the game, ESPN Stats & Info tweeted, "Terrence Ross is the 1st player in NBA history with a 50-point game who was averaging less than 10 PPG."

    The points pile up quickly when three-pointers are involved, and that was the obvious driving force behind Ross' career high.

    He was on fire that night, drilling shot after shot, generally off the catch. For a second-year player, it was a enticing glimpse into a future that never really materialized.

    Ross still has time for a later-career breakout, but his current career high for points per game in a season is 15.1.

4. Willie Burton

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    Noren Trotman/Getty Images

    Not only was this 53-point game from Willie Burton a massive surprise—he only has one other game over 30—it trails only Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game as arguably the most efficient single-season scoring performance of all time.

    The following methodology was concocted by NBA Math's Adam Fromal:

    • Divide the player's points by his shot attempts for that game.
    • Divide the number of points scored in the NBA that season by the number of shots attempted to get the league average (ideally, we'd use the average allowed by the player's opponent, but that data is not available for many of the games that took place before the ABA-NBA merger).
    • Then subtract the league-average points per shot from the player's points per shot.
    • Multiply that answer by the number of attempts the player took in that game.

    After applying that formula, you see that Wilt contributed 30.55 points over average on his historic 100-point night. Burton's 29.36 on Dec. 13, 1994, is next on the list.

    "It was surreal," Burton told Vice's Andrew Heisel. "It was almost like, 'Wow I can't believe I just did that.' ... Sometimes I sit back and think to this day, 'Wow. That's pretty big.'"

    And that may be underselling it. The performance was a remarkable, and borderline shocking, achievement for a player who finished his career with a scoring average of 10.3 points. But Burton himself may not have been quite as surprised.

    "People can give their opinion about what's likely and unlikely," Burton said. "But you make it to the NBA because you're a heck of a player first and foremost. Anyone in the NBA is capable of an incredible night."

3. Tracy Murray

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    Prior to the 1997-98 season, Tracy Murray had averaged 9.4 points. The most shots he'd hit in a game was 15. The most free throws he'd hit was eight.

    On Feb. 10, 1998, he topped both those marks on the way to 50 points on 18-of-29 shooting against the Golden State Warriors. And he may have exorcised a demon along the way.

    Nine years earlier, Murray had a high school performance for the ages, but it came in a loss.

    "Scored 64 points and lost the game," Murray said, per Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher, then of the Washington Post. "I ask myself all the time, 'How do you score 64 and lose?' Haunts me to this day. That's what makes this so sweet. We won."

    It didn't hurt that Rod Strickland had 21 points, 20 assists and 12 rebounds in that game.

2. Tony Delk

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    On Dec. 23, 2000, Tony Delk scored 26 points against the Denver Nuggets. It tied a career high he set in 1998. Just over a week later, on Jan. 2, 2001, he went 20-of-27 from the field on the way to 53 points.

    He never topped 30 again, and the 20 shots he made almost doubled any other performance from his career.

    "Delk, who scored 31 points after halftime and spent almost the entire game in a sort of shooter’s groove, reached his previous career high early in the third quarter and never cooled down," the Associated Press reported. "His shooting accuracy was all the more unbelievable because nearly all of his shots were jumpers, and he also made 13 of 15 free throws."

    Delk didn't hit a single three in that game, making him one of 34 players in the three-point era to score 50 without scoring from deep.

    As you might suspect, most of the rest of that list is made up of big men. Delk stands just 6'1".

1. Corey Brewer

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    Corey Brewer had played six seasons in the NBA before he returned to the Minnesota Timberwolves for the 2013-14 season. His career average was 9.5 points on 41.6 percent shooting. His career three-point percentage was 29.8.

    On April 11, 2014, he had an out-of-body experience on the way to 51 points on 19-of-30 shooting from the field and 11-of-15 shooting from the line. Prior to that game, Brewer's career highs for points, field goals and free throws were 29, 12 and 10.

    After the game, LeBron James was asked about the performance, per NBC Sports' Tom Haberstroh:

    "LeBron, hear about Corey Brewer?" "Nah." "He scored 51 tonight." "Wait, who?!"

    Brewer had been a serviceable role player to that point in his career, but the bulk of his minutes were earned on defense. His length, athleticism and switchability made him a versatile weapon on that end.

    That night, those attributes were deployed to greater effect on offense than they had been in any other game in his career. Brewer was like a one-man, in-game layup line, particularly in transition.

    The 16 shots he made within five feet of the hoop gave him the season high for a single game that season, two ahead of Blake Griffin's 14 against the Miami Heat.

    Brewer would never approach that level of scoring again. His scoring average over his next five (and final) seasons was 6.9. If it's any consolation to him, the figures he posted before and after 51 give him a pretty good shot to top lists like this.


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