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Dominique Wilkins: The Human Highlight Film


photo by Chris Raptis, 1996, CC 3.0

A dynamic scorer with dazzling athleticism, Dominique Wilkins was one of the NBA’s most iconic players of the eighties and early nineties. The Atlanta Hawks Hall of Famer averaged 25+ points per game 10 straight seasons from 1985-94, and captured two Slam Dunk championships (1985, 1990).


The 6’8” forward captured the attention of NBA scouts after starring for three seasons at the University of Georgia, where he garnered three All-SEC selections and finished as the school’s all-time leading scorer. Wilkins entered the NBA Draft after his junior year, and was selected with the third overall pick by the Utah Jazz.


On September 2, 1982, the young forward was traded to Atlanta, the team he would call home for the next 12 years. Wilkins made an immediate impact in his first season, averaging 17.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, and earning NBA All-Rookie honors.


 

It didn’t take long for Wilkins to develop from a promising rookie into one of the league’s elite players, as he improved his scoring average to 21.5 in 1983-84 to 27.4 in his third season in 84-85. He also won his first Slam Dunk Contest title in 1985, beating Michael Jordan in the finals, setting up the greatest slam dunk rivalry in history.


In 1985-86, “The Human Highlight Film” took his game to yet another level, leading the NBA with 30.3 points per game while earning both All-Star and First Team All-NBA selections.


Wilkins also led the Hawks to their first 50-win season in six years. The 26-year-old averaged 28.6 points and 6.0 rebounds in nine playoff games before Atlanta was eliminated in the Eastern Conference Semifinals by the eventual champion Boston Celtics.


 

Wilkins and the Hawks continued their success, posting three more 50-win seasons to give them a franchise record four straight. Wilkins averaged 29.1 points per game during the run, including a career-high 30.7 in 1987-88.


Atlanta narrowly missed going to the Conference Finals in 1988, losing to the Celtics in seven games in the Semis. Wilkins was impressive once again, averaging 31.2 points and 6.4 rebounds in 12 postseason games. This included three 40-point games, highlighted by 47 in the Game 7 loss to Boston.


 

Wilkins remained one of the NBA’s top players as the decade turned to the nineties. “The Human Highlight Film” captured his second Slam Dunk title in 1990, two years after losing his legendary rematch with Jordan in 1988.


After averaging 26.7 points in 1989-90, Wilkins averaged 25.9 points and a career-high 9.0 rebounds in 90-91. In 1991-92, the durable forward suffered the first major injury of his career after tearing his Achilles tendon. The injury forced Wilkins to miss 40 games after he had missed only 18 games in his first nine seasons.


The 33-year-old All-Star bounced back in a big way in 1992-93, averaging 29.9 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists. The scoring average was the third-highest of his career.


 

The next season marked the end of an era on multiple levels. It would be the last of nine straight All-Star selections for Wilkins, and his last of 10 straight seasons averaging at least 25 points per game. Most importantly, it would be his last year in Atlanta, as the Hawks icon was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers on February 4, 1994.


Wilkins signed as a free agent with the Celtics for the 1994-95 season, and averaged a solid but unspectacular 17.8 points and 5.2 rebounds. After the season, the future Hall of Famer surprised everyone by signing to play for Panathinaikos Athens in Greece.


Wilkins was outstanding on his European journey, winning numerous honors, most notably EuroLeague Final Four MVP after leading Athens to the EuroLeague championship in 1996.


 

The 37-year-old returned to the states for the 1996-97 season after signing a free agent contract with the San Antonio Spurs. Wilkins had another strong season, averaging 18.2 points and 6.4 rebounds in 63 games.


Wilkins made a second trip to Europe in 1997-98, where he played for Teamsystem Bologna of the Italian League. The NBA legend was an All-Star for Bologna, averaging 17.8 points and 7.3 rebounds.


At 39, Wilkins returned for one final NBA season. He averaged only 5.0 points and 2.6 rebounds in 27 games for the Orlando Magic in 1998-99, but he did get to play alongside his younger brother Gerald for the first time in his career.


 

“The Human Highlight Film” finished his stellar career with 26,668 points, which currently ranks 16th in NBA history. His career scoring average of 24.8 points per game ranks 14th all time. Even though Wilkins never played in an NBA Finals, his career postseason numbers were outstanding, as he averaged 25.4 points and 6.7 rebounds in 56 games.


Wilkins was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.

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