Born: November 3, 1928
Died: August 13, 2004
Position: Small Forward
Fort Wayne Pistons (NBA): 1953-’57
Detroit Pistons (NBA): 1957-’59
Syracuse Nationals (NBA): 1959-’60
Los Angeles Jets (ABL): 1961-’62
The one thing I’m most proud of as a coach is playing Yardley. He became the first player to score 2,000 points in a season, and he was such a skinny, chalky-white bastard that you thought he was dying from malnutrition.
– Fort Wayne Pistons coach Charley Eckman in Tall Tales
George Yardley was indeed the first player to score 2000 points in an NBA season. The Bird, as the fleet forward was called, pulled off the feat in the 1957-58 season. In the final game of the year, he needed 25 points to reach the 2000-point mark. Against the Syracuse Nationals, he scored 26 points and ended the year with 2001 points on 27.8 points per game.
That little factoid can be Yardley’s calling card, but the swingman deserves to be remembered for so much more.
Along with Philadelphia Warrior forward Paul Arizin, Yardley was a pioneer of off-the-dribble jump shooting. As Yardley himself once attested, Arizin and he were the only guys who took their jump shots at the apex of their jump instead of while shooting on the way up.
Seems like a small, insignificant thing. However, it was another important evolution of shooting. Shooting while going up meant the shot was more pushed than released. At the apex required greater strength from the arms, wrists, and hands rather than letting the legs provide the momentum.
Given his shooting and scoring methods, Yardley was probably the most athletic slasher and shooter in the mid-1950s NBA.
Aside from his jumping shot, he possessed a lightning-quick first step. This put defenders in a bind since Yardley could nail his jumper standing still, but if you closed out too hard he would blow by you in a hurry to the basket. And even if you did recover, Yardley was a beast at making off-balance or fading away jumpers. Basically, he’s the antecedent for players like Reggie Miller, Carmelo Anthony, and Kevin Durant who love to fire up jump shots from a litany of contorting angles.
Yardley spent the majority of his career with the Fort Wayne Pistons, had a short stint in Detroit after the Pistons relocated there in 1957, and closed out his brief seven-year career with the Syracuse Nationals. The brevity is partly because he had to serve two years in the Navy thus delaying the start of his career and partly because he retired early to start his own engineering company.
He still packed those seven years with significant achievement. He was a six-time all-star and played in back-to-back NBA Finals with the Pistons in 1955 and 1956. The first of those was a nail-biting seven-game series with Fort Wayne against Syracuse. The Pistons lost the final game by one point. The next season the Pistons again lost to the Philadelphia Warriors in a much-closer-than-it-looks five games. They lost three of the four games by a combined eight points. The Yardbird was absolutely beastly in the ’56 Finals, despite the negative result for his Pistons. He averaged 25 points and 15 rebounds in the five-game series.
As his career wound down, Yardley helped lead the Pistons – now in Detroit – to the Western Division Finals in 1958. In 1959, after the trade to Syracuse, Yardley injected the Nationals with enough punch to nearly knock off the emerging Celtics Dynasty. Yardley averaged 26 PPG in the Eastern Division Finals against in Boston in ’59. In the decisive Game 7, Syracuse lost by a mere 5 points on Boston’s home court. Yardley was superb with 32 points in the narrow loss.
When Yardley did finally step away from the NBA after the 1960 season, he still had plenty of juice left averaging 20 points and eight rebounds on career-highs in FG% and FT%. His 20.2 PPG that year made him the first player to retire while averaging over 20 PPG in his final season. Since then he’s been joined by only Bob Pettit, Rudy LaRusso, Paul Arizin, and Michael Jordan.
And yet, Yardley wasn’t quite done with pro basketball just yet. He joined the Los Angeles Jets of the upstart American Basketball League in the 1961-62 season. George swooped in and averaged 19.2 points in 25 games before the Jets prematurely folded due to financial trouble.
What’s most intriguing of Yardley’s brief sojourn in the ABL was the three-point shot. The ABL was the first pro league to use the three-pointer and Yardley made 14 of 37 attempts that year for a cool average of 37.8%. Yardley was already an offensive menace. Imagine him with a three-pointer to his already impressive arsenal.
As it stands, Yardley was damn good enough and one of the best scoring small forwards in basketball history.
All-NBA 1st Team (1958)
All-NBA 2nd Team (1957)
6x All-Star (1955-’60)
Regular Season Career Averages (497 games):
19.2 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 1.8 APG
.499 TS%, .421 FG%, .378 3PT%, .781 FT%
20.5 PER, .178 WS/48
Playoff Career Averages (46 games):
20.3 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 2.4 APG
.507 TS%, .422 FG%, .817 FT%
20.7 PER, .174 WS/48