LaRue Martin: Honorable Mention (NBA)

LaRUE MARTIN WITH PRESIDENT OBAMA – WHO’S THE BUST?

WHEN IN DOUBT, GO WITH THIS GUY

Danza

Boss / Bust – Ah, close enough.

Synopsis: Every decade seems to produce an NBA draft pick who becomes the poster child for failure. What Darko Milicic was to the 2000s, Michael Olowokandi was to the 1990s, Sam Bowie was to the 1980s, and LaRue Martin was to the 1970s. In previous posts, I explained why Bowie, Milicic, and Olowokandi shouldn’t be considered all-time busts even though I’ve ranked them as the worst three draft picks in NBA history. Similarly, Martin ranks as one of the all-time worst NBA draft picks (#9), but shouldn’t be considered a Top 10 Bust. Regardless, his underwhelming professional career as a #1 overall pick made him worthy of an Honorable Mention.


NBA DRAFT BUST HONORABLE MENTION: LaRUE MARTIN

Throughout its existence from the late ’60s to the mid ’70s, the ABA helped change the landscape of professional basketball. Players certainly benefited from having better opportunities to play after college, but there’s no doubt that the league operated as a business serving the best interests of its owners. As just one example, the league scheduled its draft in order to maximize leverage over the players. While its seems reasonable that the ABA moved up its draft date to get a jump on the NBA, its seems less reasonable after considering that the draft occurred even before the end of the regular season. As such, the draft order was based on interim standings instead of each team’s final regular-season record or finish in the playoffs.

Based on its league-worst record going into the 1972 ABA Draft, the New York Nets focused their attention on signing Marquette All-American Jim Chones. Using his financial hardship to their advantage, the Nets gave Chones a generous offer but made it contingent on him forgoing the NBA Draft. After being given less than 12 hours to accept the deal or risk losing the financial security that his family desperately needed, Chones signed the contract. As a result, he immediately lost his remaining college eligibility because the ABA Draft occurred before the end of the college season as well. Prior to losing Chones, Marquette had a 21-0 record and #2 national ranking. After losing him, Marquette went 4-4 and only won one game in the NCAA Tournament. No one can fault Chones for choosing his family over his team, but we can can fault the system for forcing him to make the decision in the first place.

Jim Chones aba

Click here to find out more about the strong-arm tactics used by the ABA in its attempt to compete against Big Brother (i.e. the NBA).

In one of the tougher challenges during its winning streak to start the season, Marquette narrowly beat Loyola University of Chicago by the score of 69-67. Chones led Marquette with 23 points in that game, but had a tough battle against Loyola center LaRue Martin. While Martin’s performance was commendable, it took on additional meaning because he also had a strong game against UCLA All-American Bill Walton one night earlier. Walton tallied 18 points and 16 rebounds as UCLA trounced Loyola 92-64, but Martin held his own with totals of 19 points and 18 rebounds. Portland Trail Blazers scout Stu Inman, who was in attendance for both games, took notice of Martin’s strong back-to-back performances against the two premier big men in the country. As you’ll find out, Inman probably wishes he was snowed out and never made the trip to the Windy City.

Showing that those games were not an aberration, Martin put up some impressive statistics throughout his three-year career with the Loyola Ramblers.

LaRUE MARTIN – LOYOLA UNIVERSITY (OF CHICAGO) RAMBLERS
Shooting % Per Game Averages
Season Games FG FT Rebounds

Points

1969-70

24 50.6% 63.0% 14.4 16.6
1970-71 22 40.9% 63.0% 17.6

18.7

1971-72

21 44.3% 81.6% 15.7 19.6
Career 67 44.9% 69.2% 15.9

18.2

 

With almost 20 points and 16 rebounds per game as a senior, Martin produced some incredible numbers. Regardless, he didn’t receive any national recognition at the end of the season. The AP identified 15 college players as 1st, 2nd or 3rd team All-Americans and another 39 college players deserving an Honorable Mention after the 1971-72 season. Both Walton and Chones were consensus 1st Team All-Americans, but Martin wasn’t included as one of those 54 recognized players. Either the news of Martin’s performances against the other two didn’t extend beyond the Chicago Stadium crowds, or his inability to carry his team to more success made him invisible to the voters. Based on the Ramblers’ records of 13-11 in 1969-70, 4-20 in 1970-71, and 8-14 in 1971-72, the AP writers likely didn’t care that he had good numbers for a bad team.

Given that Walton was planning to stay at UCLA and Chones had already signed with the Nets, Bob McAdoo (a consensus 1st Team All-American out of UNC) was considered the best player coming out of college in 1972. For this reason, the Portland Trail Blazers targeted the former Tar Heel as the first overall pick in the NBA Draft. However, negotiations between Portland and McAdoo fell apart at the 11th hour, presumably when the player’s agent tried to get the team to throw in a car and extra game tickets. According to a Bleacher Report article from June 2010, Jack McCloskey (Portland’s head coach at the time of the draft) said,

It looked like McAdoo was going to be ours. The negotiations were going fine. But close to the draft, the owner and Bob’s agent disappeared into a room. When they came out, the deal was off.

As Plan B, the Trail Blazers took LaRue Martin with its #1 pick instead. McAdoo had a Hall-of-Fame career (including five All-Star appearances and one regular-season MVP award) after averaging 22 points and nine rebounds per game over 14 seasons. In contrast, Martin lasted only four seasons in the league, during which he averaged five points and five rebounds per game. In case you’re not convinced, the following table confirms that Portland made a big, big mistake.

LaRUE MARTIN – PORTLAND TRAILBLAZERS
  Shooting % Per Game Averages
Season Games FG FT Rebounds Assists Blocks

Points

1972-73 77 39.6% 64.9% 4.6 0.5 NA 4.4
1973-74 50 43.5% 63.6% 3.6 0.4 0.5 4.9
1974-75 81 45.2% 69.7% 5.0 0.9 0.6 7.0
1975-76 63 36.1% 74.0% 4.9 0.1 0.4 4.4
Career 271 41.6% 68.5% 4.6 0.7 0.5

5.3

 

Based on these numbers, Martin showed that he could be somewhat productive coming off the bench; however, no team should be content using a #1 overall pick on a career back-up. Adding to the team’s dissatisfaction, Martin got outplayed from day one (literally, the first day of practice) by Lloyd Neal, who was taken in the third round of the same draft. Despite being four inches shorter than Martin, Neal became the starting center and averaged a double-double (13 ppg and 12 rpg) during their rookie season. Clearly, Portland’s scouting report on Martin was flawed.

Before you scoff, I’ll ask the question, “Who am I to sit at a computer forty years later and second guess an NBA talent scout who evaluated Martin in person?” Well, I’ll try to answer that question with four supporting arguments.

1) The earliest Martin could have been drafted in the 1972 ABA Draft was 7th overall, and more likely, he was taken with a pick in the teens or 20s. 

Unlike the NBA, the ABA conducted its entire draft behind closed doors. The ABA obviously disclosed each team’s aggregate picks, but it didn’t provide the details regarding the exact order for each player. Instead, the website prosportstransactions.com has researched historical ABA drafts and reconstructed them as close as possible. Based on that site’s ranking, LaRue Martin was taken with the Dallas Chaparrals’ first round pick (i.e. 7th overall), followed by Mike Ratliff, Bob Morse, Bill Walton, and Steve Hawes.

LaRUE MARTIN AND OTHER NOTABLE DALLAS CHAPARRALS DRAFT PICKS FROM 1972
Player Assumed 1972 ABA Draft Position Actual 1972 NBA Draft Position NCAA Recognition Professional Basketball Recognition / Accomplishments
LaRue Martin #7 #1 None NBA career: 1,430 points and 1,258 rebounds
Mike Ratliff #12-22 #28 None NBA career: 241 points and 194 rebounds
Bob Morse #12-22 #32 AP All-American Honorable Mention Named one of FIBA’s All-Time Greatest 50 Players (1991)
Bill Walton #29 Ineligible Consensus College Player-of-the-Year Named one of the NBA’s All-Time Greatest 50 Players (1996)
Steve Hawes #40 #24 AP All-American Honorable Mention NBA career: 5,768 points / 4,272 rebounds

I don’t know what methodology was used by the website, but it seems faulty to me. In particular, it’s hard to imagine that the unanimous College Player-of-the-Year would fall to the 29th spot in the ABA Draft. I understand that Walton was unlikely to come out early, but most ABA draft picks were wasted on players who went to the NBA anyway so the risk/reward payoff seems worthy of a higher selection. Regardless, the highest Martin possibly could have been drafted was 7th overall. Interestingly, if Martin had been taken in that same spot of the NBA draft, he would have escaped any lingering criticism that has haunted him for almost 50 years. In case you doubt that assessment, let’s play a quick game of Jeopardy!

trebek

Even the cartoon version of Alex Trebek would look better with a mustache.

Trebek: For the final question tonight, “This 6th overall pick from the 1972 NBA Draft scored fewer than 300 total points in approximately 100 career NBA games.”

Cue the iconic music.

Contestant 1: Who is LaRue Martin?

Trebek: [In his typical dismissive tone] C’mon! Everyone knows that Martin was the 1st overall pick that year ahead of Bob McAdoo and Julius Erving. Furthermore, Martin had over 1,400 points in almost 300 games.

Contestant 2: Who is Tom Riker?

Trebek: Oooh, so close. The stats are right, but Riker was the 8th overall pick that year.

Contestant 3: Who is Russ Lee?

Trebek: Exactly! Who is Russ Lee?

If LaRue Martin had been drafted a few spots lower, he too would be as anonymous as Tom Riker and Russ Lee.

2) Portland’s primary scout, Stu Inman, became the team’s interim head coach in early February so talent evaluation for the 1972 Draft was incomplete, at best.

Less than one week after going to Chicago to evaluate Walton and Chones, Inman became the Trail Blazers’ interim head coach for the remainder of the season. As such, the last college players he likely saw in his role as the team’s primary scout included Chones (who went to the Nets), Walton (who wasn’t eligible for the NBA Draft) and Martin. If Inman hadn’t gone to Chicago, Portland likely wouldn’t have known enough about Martin to draft him at all, much less as their first pick.

When asked years later about the selection of Martin, Inman commented that he strongly wanted McAdoo and didn’t have a role in the decision not to take the future Hall of Famer. For as accurate as that statement might be, Inman couldn’t hide from his role as the primary person who scouted Martin. Regardless of whom deserves the blame, Portland was ill equipped to change course at the last minute. The team missed terribly not only with its selection of Martin as the first pick of the first round, but also with its selection of PG Bob Davis as the first pick of the second round (#14 overall). With career totals of 16 points in 9 games (no joke), Davis made Martin look like a superstar. No one is still alive to confirm my belief, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the team targeted McAdoo with its first pick (#1 overall), Martin with its second pick (#14 overall), and Davis with its third pick (#26 overall).

3) Portland’s head coach never had heard of Martin before finding out that the team took him with the #1 pick.

I get it, Portland’s new head coach really wanted the First-Team All-American from UNC so he was unhappy that another player was taken instead. At Wake Forest for the 1971-72 season, Coach McCloskey watched McAdoo lead the Tar Heels to victories over the Demon Deacons by double digits three times (99-76 in December, 92-77 in January, and 71-59 in February). In addition, the coach probably developed a further appreciation after reviewing hours of tape in preparation for those games. In contrast, Wake Forest didn’t play Loyola during Martin’s four years at the school so McCloskey had no reason to scout him. Regardless, it’s hard to imagine that an ACC coach wouldn’t be at least somewhat familiar with someone worthy of the first overall pick in the draft. As told to Bleacherreport.com, McCroskey remembered thinking, “Gee, I know a lot of college players, but I’ve never heard of LaRue Martin.” McCloskey added, “LaRue Martin was a very nice young man, but he just wasn’t worthy of that high of a draft pick.”  

4) Inman’s track record of talent evaluation had more than one blemish.

At Portland from its inception in 1970, Inman wore many hats. During the team’s first decade, he served as the head scout, then as the head coach, then as the head scout again. Inman clearly missed the mark with his evaluation of Martin, but his input regarding the team’s picks in the 1974 Draft (Walton-#1 overall), 1975 Draft (Lionel Hollins-#6 overall) and 1976 ABA dispersal draft (Maurice Lucas-#2 overall) helped lead the Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA Championship. The selections of Walton and Lucas didn’t require extensive basketball intelligence (i.e. they were “no-brainers”), but the choice of Hollins was a nice fit for the team. Perhaps based on Portland’s success after making these picks, Inman ultimately became the team’s GM in 1981.

In 1980, Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe called Martin the greatest bust in NBA draft history. By the time Inman’s tenure as GM ended in 1986, Martin wasn’t even the worst Trail Blazer ever drafted. Specifically, Inman made the biggest blunder in NBA draft history by taking Sam Bowie instead of Michael Jordan. I have written numerous posts to soften the criticism of that decision (e.g. how Bowie was too productive in his career to be considered a bust, and how the pick could be justified given that Clyde Drexler already was on the roster), but it’s hard to overlook the magnitude of the mistake. With all due respect to Charles Barkley (who is the best NBA analyst on TV today) and his distrust of analytics, I bet that anyone with some video tapes and box scores could have avoided making the same colossal mistakes as Inman.

In closing, I have provided the career statistics for notable players from the 1972 NBA Draft mentioned in this post.

LaRUE MARTIN AND OTHER NOTABLE PLAYERS – 1972 NBA DRAFT
Draft Pick Team Player Position Games Points Rebounds Assists PPG RPG APG Win Shares
#1 POR LaRue Martin C 271 1,430 1,258 203 5.3 4.6 0.7 1.9
#2 BUF Bob McAdoo PF/C 852 18,787 8,048 1,951 22.1 9.4 2.3 89.1
#6 MIL Russ Lee SG/SF 97 282 114 65 2.9 1.2 0.7 0.5
#8 NYK Tom Riker PF/C 82 225 138 24 2.7 1.7 0.3 0.4
#10 BOS Paul Westphal G 823 12,809 1,580 3,591 15.6 1.9 4.4 67.7
#12 MIL Julius Erving SF 836 18,364 5,601 3,224 22.0 6.7 3.9 106.2
#14 POR Bob Davis PG 9 16 5 2 1.8 0.6 0.2 -0.3
#24 CLE Steve Hawes C 688 5,768 4,272 1,288 8.4 6.2 1.9 37.1
#31 POR Lloyd Neal PF/C 435 4,846 3,370 632 11.1 7.7 1.5 22.7

At first glance, it’s easy to see how Martin could be considered an all-time bust. In particular, it appears that Portland selected him ahead of two future Hall of Famers (i.e. McAdoo and Erving). By now, you should realize that Martin was taken before McAdoo only because of failed contract negotiations. In addition, any comparison to Erving is inappropriate because “The Doctor” already had played one season for the Virginia Squires of the ABA before the 1972 NBA Draft even happened. As such, Milwaukee’s use of the 12th overall pick to select him was a complete waste. In fact, Portland got infinitely more production from Martin (1,430 points and 1,258 rebounds) than Milwaukee got from Erving (0 points and 0 rebounds). If McAdoo and Martin switched spots and Erving were removed from the previous table, Martin no longer would be considered an all-time bust.

Unlike certain celebrities (like, say, the Kardashians) who appreciate any publicity whether good or bad, Martin has been deeply affected by the negative stigma of being called an all-time bust. Then again, he seems to be quite proud of the mementos he has from his time in the NBA.

larue martin cards

An autographed rookie LaRue Martin card goes for $75, which is $75 more than mine or yours.

Based on my evaluation, LaRue Martin can be viewed in one of two ways: 1) he had a decent career as a back-up, but was drafted too early; or 2) he drastically underdelivered as a #1 overall pick. While neither option probably gives him any solace, the first one should be less bothersome. On the other hand, the second option can’t be ignored completely so Martin still earned the recognition as a Top 10 Bust Honorable Mention.

NBA DRAFT BUST HONORABLE MENTION: LaRUE MARTIN
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