Hoping to follow in Malone’s footsteps, the 18-year-old Dawkins renounced his college eligibility and applied for the 1975 NBA Draft as a hardship candidate. The Philadelphia 76ers made him the fifth overall pick, behind David Thompson, David Meyers, Marvin Webster, and Alvan Adams. According to the New York Daily News, when Dawkins made his debut with the 76ers, New York Knicks guard Walt Frazier took one look and said, "I bet his teachers called him ‘Mr. Darryl.’"
With his size, speed, and touch, Dawkins was expected to take over the league. But he handled the expectations in typical fashion. "When I walked into the league, they wanted me to be Wilt Chamberlain right away—without one minute of college ball," he told the Daily News. "I can’t be Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt is much taller than me."
A raw talent who needed time to develop, Dawkins languished on the Sixers’ bench for his first two seasons. As a rookie in 1975-76 he played in only 37 games, averaging 2.4 points in 4.5 minutes per game. The next year he played a limited role during the regular season but began to emerge during the playoffs. The Sixers advanced all the way to the NBA Finals that year, and Dawkins was called upon to help battle Portland’s Bill Walton. The Trail Blazers won the series in six games, but Dawkins earned respect among the Philadelphia coaching staff with 7.3 points and 5.4 rebounds per contest in the postseason.
In the 1977-78 season Dawkins finally found a regular role, coming off the bench for nearly 25 minutes per game. Now a robust 20 years old, he averaged 11.7 points and 7.9 rebounds and ranked second in the league in field-goal percentage at .575. With a club that included Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Lloyd Free, and Doug Collins, the Sixers made another solid postseason run, advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals before losing to the Washington Bullets in six games.
Prior to the 1978–79 season Philadelphia traded McGinnis to the Denver Nuggets for Bobby Jones and Ralph Simpson. The move was made in part to clear space for Dawkins on the Sixers’ front line, which also included 6-foot-11 Caldwell Jones. Over the next three seasons Dawkins and Caldwell Jones split time at the center and power forward positions, and Dawkins had the most productive stretch of his career. In 1979–80 he averaged 14.7 points and a career-high 8.7 rebounds, helping the Sixers back to the NBA Finals, which they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games.
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