Andrew Ungvari: Eddie Jones
There’s zero doubt in my mind that the most underrated player in Lakers history was Eddie Charles Jones. Unfortunately for Eddie, he had the misfortune of playing the same position as some high school kid the Lakers would trade for for just two years after drafting him.
To understand what Eddie Jones meant to the Lakers, you’d have to go back to the 1993-94 season. That team ended the season with 10 straight losses and a 33-49 record. They were the first Lakers team since 1976 to miss the playoffs. To put that into perspective, there were 17-year-old kids in 1994, like myself, who had never witnessed a season in which they missed the playoffs.
Of the 16 players who would wear a Lakers uniform that season, seven of them were either in his first or second season. More than anything, that team lacked an identity. It was clear that then-GM Jerry West was busy trying to amass as many talented young players as he could in preparation for a future deal.
Eddie Jones, drafted 10th overall in the 1994 draft, was one of only two top-10 draft picks the Lakers would make between 1984 and the present (Andrew Bynum being the other). The shooting guard position before Eddie’s arrival was split amongst Sedale Threatt, Anthony Peeler, and Tony Smith. None of the three had inspired any excitement or hope for the future of the franchise the way Eddie did.
It didn’t take long either. In just the fourth game of his career, Eddie scored 31 points on 12-for-15 shooting. Two days later he would score 20 points and grab nine rebounds. His 25 points in the 1995 Rookie Game were enough to earn him the MVP despite being on the losing team. Chants of “Ed-die! Ed-die!” were as common at The Great Western Forum as Jack Nicholson and Dyan Cannon.
But it wasn’t just that he scored so much as how he scored. You could make the case that Eddie Jones is the most underrated dunker in NBA history. If you don’t believe me, just sit back and watch this compilation.
With Vlade Divac, Elden Campbell, Nick Van Exel, newcomers Cedric Ceballos, Eddie Jones, and head coach Del Harris, the Lakers were quickly becoming one the league’s most exciting teams. The team that had won 33 games the previous season already had 29 by the All-Star Break.
Eddie would go on to average 14 points per game his rookie year and make First-Team All-Rookie. The Lakers would go 48-34 and upset the Seattle Super Sonics in the first-round – a team that finished nine games better during the regular season. Not bad for a team who’s top-7 players were all 26 or younger.
The Lakers would improve to 53-29 the following season – a weird season in which Magic Johnson would rejoin the team in January and the Rockets would upset them. Eddie’s scoring average dropped by a point but that had more to do with Magic’s arrival. Few would admit it, but Magic might have done more to disrupt that team than help it.
During the summer of 1996, Jerry West would acquire Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Although Kobe and Eddie would find a way to coexist, it seemed inevitable that one of them would eventually be traded. And if the team was going to have to choose between the two, they were going to keep the younger Bryant.
Eddie would go on to average around 17 points per game in 1996-97 and 1997-98. He made the All-Star team in both of those seasons. By 1998-99, Harris would have no choice but to insert Kobe into the starting lineup and move Eddie to small forward.
The writing was on the wall. Eddie wasn’t a good enough three-point shooter to play alongside Bryant. The team needed a shooter who could make opposing defenses pay for double and triple-teaming Shaq. He wasn’t a small forward either. In fact, he and Kobe shared very much the same skill set. It wasn’t uncommon to hear Chick Hearn call them by the other one’s name.
In 1999, the Lakers traded Eddie along with Elden Campbell to the Hornets for Glen Rice, J.R. Reid, and B.J. Armstrong.
When it was all said and done, Eddie Jones retired as a three-time All-Star, three-time Second Team All-Defense and one-time All-NBA selection. For the remainder of Eddie’s career, I hoped he’d one day return. Legend has it that Mitch Kupchak was given the choice between Brian Grant and Eddie in the Shaq trade and opted for Grant. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.