Jamaal Wilkes’ smooth subtle style of play although often overlooked by fans, was admired by his peers. For the most part, his achievements during his 12-year career were seldom rewarded with fanfare. But he won wherever he played. Wilkes entered the NBA after earning All-American honors at UCLA as well as being a key player on two undefeated NCAA championship teams and made an immediate impact with the Golden State Warriors as a rookie for the 1975 NBA Champions. He was also an essential member of the Los Angeles Lakers teams known as Showtime that captured three titles in the early 1980s.
Wilkes won four NBA tiltes, one with the Golden State Warriors and three with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Born Jackson Keith Wilkes in 1953, but shortly after turning professional the forward changed his name to Jamaal Abdul-Lateef because of his Islamic religious beliefs, but he went by Jamaal Wilkes. He was named the 1975 NBA Rookie of the Year, overshadowing his former college teammate Bill Walton.
Wilkes may also live on in film. Also in 1975, the movie Cornbread, Earl and Me was released and Wilkes played the titular character of Cornbread that also starred the pre-pubescent actor Laurence Fishburne.
Golden State selected Wilkes with the 11th overall pick in the 1974 NBA Draft. He contributed 14.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, epitomizing Coach Al Attles’s philosophy of team play.
Golden State had a tough fight in the playoffs, muscling past the Seattle SuperSonics and the Chicago Bulls to reach the 1975 NBA Finals against Washington. Then the Warriors surprised the Bullets and much of the basketball world by sweeping the series in four straight games. After only one NBA season Wilkes owned an NBA championship ring.
Wilkes’s soft shot was one of the oddest imaginable. He lofted the ball with a release that was so “wrong” that it could never have been taught, much less analyzed. He cocked with a motion that looked as if he were reaching over his shoulder to scratch a shoulder blade, then launched a high trajectory shot from somewhere behind his right ear. The ball seemed to have an odd sideways spin toward the hoop, but it went through nearly 50 percent of the time during his NBA career. Wilkes was also a solid free-throw shooter.
Wilkes true value was never measurable by statistics alone, but he averaged 17.8 ppg and a career-high 8.8 rpg in 1975-76, earning his first trip to the NBA All-Star Game. In 1976-77, he averaged 17.7 ppg and improved his field-goal percentage to .478. In each of those two seasons Wilkes was named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team.
After three seasons with the Warriors, Wilkes signed with the Los Angeles Lakers as a free agent. Wilkes helped the Lakers win titles in 1980 and 1982, and he watched from the bench with an injury as the team won another championship in 1985.
In 1978-79, Wilkes averaged 18.6 ppg and posted a career-high 134 steals. The next year he ranked second on the team in scoring behind Abdul-Jabbar, with an average of 20.0 ppg. That year Wilkes also posted a career-best 250 assists.
The 1980 NBA Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers included a classic performance by Wilkes in the sixth and final contest, the game that became a cornerstone of the Magic Johnson legend. Normally the point guard, rookie Johnson filled in at center for the injured Abdul-Jabbar and scored 42 points to spark a dramatic Lakers victory over the 76ers. Wilkes’s career-high 37 points were overlooked in the glare of Johnson’s spectacular performance.
Wilkes reached his offensive peak in 1980-81 when he scored 22.6 ppg. When a knee injury sidelined Johnson for 45 games, Wilkes stepped up his scoring pace. Once again he ranked second on the team in scoring as part of a potent offensive attack that also included Johnson (21.6 ppg in 37 games), Abdul-Jabbar (26.2) and Norm Nixon (17.1). Wilkes played in his second NBA All-Star Game that season and pumped in 15 points.
At 6-6 and 190 pounds, Wilkes in a five-year stretch starting with the 1978-79 season missed only 3 of 410 games and once led the Lakers in minutes played.
His slender build enabled him to slip past bigger opponents. Wilkes’s smooth style earned him the nickname “Silk,” and he personified the Lakers’ up-tempo style. He filled the lane on the Lakers’ vaunted fast break, frequently finishing off a pass from Johnson or Nixon.
In 1981-82 Wilkes ranked second on the Lakers’ scoring list to Abdul-Jabbar. He contributed 21.1 ppg and shot .525 from the field, but that was just average on a team that scored 114.6 points per game and saw five of its top six scorers (Abdul-Jabbar, Wilkes, Johnson, Mitch Kupchak, and Michael Cooper) shoot better than 50 percent. The Lakers had an easy time of it in the Western Conference playoffs, then defeated Philadelphia in six games for the championship.
In 1982-83 Wilkes was once again the main scoring support for Abdul-Jabbar, averaging 19.6 ppg. The Lakers won 58 games that year and plowed through the playoffs before being swept by Philadelphia in the Finals.
After eight campaigns, 575 games, and 10,601 points, Wilkes was through as a Laker. He signed on with the Los Angeles Clippers in 1985 but was a bit player on a struggling team. FHe retired with 14,644 points and a career scoring average of 17.7 ppg.
His UCLA coach, John Wooden, paid Wilkes his highest compliment when asked once to describe his ideal player. “I would have the player be a good student, polite, courteous, a good team player, a good defensive player and rebounder, a good inside player and outside shooter,” Wooden told the New York Post in 1985. “Why not just take Jamaal Wilkes and let it go at that.