The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announced its Hall of Fame class for 2012 on Monday in conjunction with the NCAA Tournament National Championship Game. Reggie Miller, Jamaal Wilkes and Don Nelson headlined the NBA luminaries making the Hall this year.
The name that may have stood out to NBA fans though belonged to the former No. 1 overall pick: Ralph Sampson.
Sampson was overall a disappointment in the NBA. Despite one of the most successful college careers in NCAA history, Sampson faced injuries and the emergence of an even better center alongside him that prevented him from really blossoming in the league.
So NBA fans might be wondering, how is Ralph Sampson getting enshrined?
Sampson averaged 15.4 points per game and 8.8 rebounds per game for his career. He was the 1984 Rookie of the Year and a four-time All-Star. But his scoring average sank from a high of 22.1 points per game his second year and progressively got worse each year of his nine-year career. He played in at least 60 games once in his career after his second season with the Rockets.
The 7-foot-4 center had a PER better than 20 just once in his career. Sampson was a shot blocker and defender which probably explains why Basketball-Reference.com compares him to Kendrick Perkins, Andris Biedrins and Joel Przyzbilla.
That though does not sound like a Hall of Fame player.
Sampson is a product, and might be the last, of the four years that college basketball can provide. Sampson was a three-time AP College Player of the Year and AP First Team All American. He averaged 16.9 points, 11.4 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game in a celebrated career at Virginia that resulted in an NIT championship and a Final Four appearance.
The question is was that, combined with a journeyman’s nine-year career enough to warrant enshrinement in Springfield?
This is not to take away from Sampson’s achievements at Virginia. And it was a series of bad-luck injuries that brought his downfall in the NBA — remember those young and plucky Rockets upset the Lakers to make the Finals against Larry Bird and the Celtics in 1986. To me though, four years of excellence do not erase nine more years of unfulfilled promise.
Sampson certainly is a first ballot hall of famer for the College Basketball Hall of Fame. But when taking the lens back and looking at his entire body of work, it is underwhelming. Players — great, Hall of Fame players — don’t hit their peak when they are 20 and 21. They continue to grow and develop as they get older. Sampson’s body might have broken down trying to reach his potential, but the fact remains that playing against the best on a night-in, night-out basis, Sampson became a bit player.
That does not speak Hall of Fame to me.
It goes to the larger issue of what the Hall of Fame is supposed to be. Is it a snapshot of the best players in a moment of time? Or is it a reward for a lifetime given to the game?
If it is that snapshot, could you argue that Tracy McGrady was as stellar as Sampson was in his first four years with the Magic — where he averaged better than 25 points per game for five straight seasons and led the league in scoring twice? Like Sampson, injuries robbed McGrady of a potential hall of fame career. But nobody is preparing to argue McGrady warrants hall consideration.
Sampson accomplished a lot at Virginia. It deserves recognition and reverence.
The plain fact remains. Sampson did not do it at the professional level. Not long enough and consistently enough for sure. So his inclusion could be a statement more about how the college game has devolved to that stepping stone to the NBA when it once was a stage for the world’s best players. It certainly does not seem as justified under current standards for reviewing players for Hall of Fame worthiness.