There have been countless rookies who have been able to immediately dominate the NBA upon their arrival in the league. LeBron James is probably the best and most recent example, as the prep-to-pro superstar put up an average of 20.9 points, 5.9 assists and 5.5 rebounds per game in his first year in the NBA at the tender age of just 19. That success has obviously continued over the rest of his career, as indicated by the four MVP Awards and two NBA Finals Championships he has since won.
James is not the only player to have achieved instant stardom upon entering the league, as there is a long history of rookies instantly changing the fortunes of the franchises that had the good fortune of selecting them. Larry Bird joined a Boston Celtics team that had won just 29 games the previous season and led them to a 61-win season in his rookie year, averaging 21.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists while earning First Team All-NBA honors and taking the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Wilt Chamberlain was the league’s MVP during his rookie year, averaging 37.6 points per game with the Philadelphia Warriors, and fellow Hall of Fame big man Lew Alcindor was in the top-three in scoring and rebounding in his first season, putting up 28.8 points per game while averaging 14.5 rebounds per game. Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson all enjoyed similar success during their rookie campaigns, but not all future stars are so fortunate.
In fact, many current NBA superstars have endured serious struggles during their rookie seasons. Some came into the league at a very young age and were not nearly as physically advanced as LeBron or Shaq during their rookie seasons, or they simply found it difficult to find playing time on veteran-laded rosters. The following 15 players have all been named to an NBA All-Star team (with one exception) in the last five seasons, and each and every one endured struggles in one way or another during their rookie season.
*All stats taken from Basketball-Reference.com.
15 DeMarcus Cousins
The big man more commonly known as “Boogie” put up some decent numbers during his rookie season, averaging 14.1 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, but he did so while shooting just 43.5 percent from the field, a number that is especially low for a post player like Cousins. He also led the league in personal fouls (332) despite only playing 28.5 minutes per game, and the Kings were actually a better team with Cousins on the bench, scoring seven points less per 100 possessions when Cousins was on the court.
Over the last four seasons, however, Cousins has improved significantly, earning his first All-Star berth while scoring 24.1 points and grabbing 12.7 rebounds per game this past season. His shooting percentage is up to 47.7 percent over the past three seasons, and he has been whistled for far fewer fouls than in his debut campaign with the Kings. And despite his reputation for being somewhat volatile, there are very few NBA GMs who would not want to have Cousins on their roster.
14 David Lee
Lee, an All-Star in 2010 with the Knicks and again in 2013 with the Warriors, did not earn much playing time while coming off the bench in his rookie year for a terrible Knicks team that ultimately finished the season 23-59. Despite playing on such a poorly performing team, Lee only saw 16.9 minutes per game during his rookie campaign, averaging 5.1 points and 4.5 rebounds.
Of course, not much was expected of him as the 30th pick in the 2005 NBA Draft, but he has since gone on to a very solid pro career in which he has put up 14.7 points and grabbed 6.7 rebounds per game over his 10 NBA seasons. Though he has now seen his role reduced this season with Golden State, Lee averaged 18.7 points and 10.4 rebounds over the course of the previous five seasons (2009-10 through 2013-14).
13 Kobe Bryant
A 19-year career that has included 17 All-Star appearances, five NBA Finals Championships, two scoring titles and an MVP Award began somewhat unceremoniously for Bryant in 1996/97. After being taken in the lottery by the Hornets and then traded to the Lakers, Bryant did not see much court time during his rookie season, especially during the first half of the season. He earned more playing time as the season wore on, and he ended up averaging 15.5 minutes per game while becoming the youngest player to ever play in an NBA game.
He was just 18 years old at the time, but the player who would eventually be among the top three scorers of all time only managed to average 7.6 points per game on just 41.7 percent shooting. In the playoffs, he showed a willingness to take clutch shots with the game on the line, but he famously air-balled several jumpers in the deciding game of the Lakers' playoff series against the Utah Jazz.
12 James Harden
Despite being the third overall pick of the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2009, Harden was not able to carve out big rotation minutes during his first season, seeing just 22.9 minutes of game action on average. He scored 9.9 points per game his rookie year, adding 3.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists while shooting just 40.3 percent from the field. He has improved consistently over each subsequent season, flourishing after the trade to Houston that made Harden the focal point of the Rockets offense.
Since arriving in Houston, Harden has made three straight All-Star teams and has averaged 26.3 points, 6.3 assists and 5.1 rebounds per game. His efficiency has improved across the board, and given how much the Rockets rely on Harden, there are many who believe that he should have won the MVP Award over Steph Curry this season. As for the advanced metrics, Harden went from a PER of 14.0 (below the league-average) in his rookie year with OKC to an outstanding 26.7 PER in his most recent season.
11 Rajon Rondo
Despite not having even reached the age of 30, Rondo has already had quite the career arc in the NBA. He struggled during his rookie season on a Celtics team that had absolutely no expectations, and was then thrust into a role as the distributor for a team that suddenly had three future Hall of Famers in Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. He was a role player on a championship team in 2008, and was the most productive player on a team that nearly won a second championship in 2010. He has endured serious injuries multiple times -- including a season-ending injury -- has been traded midseason and, most recently, was essentially dismissed from his team in the middle of a playoff series.
Suffice it to say that Rondo has had his fair share of ups and downs. His rookie campaign certainly qualifies as the latter, as Rondo was only able to earn 23.5 minutes per game despite competing with Sebastian Telfair and Delonte West for playing time at the point (and West was more of a two-guard). He put up just 6.4 points per game and dished out only 3.8 assists per game, all while shooting 41.8 percent from the field. A four-time All Star, Rondo’s future is now somewhat up in the air after his disastrous half-season with the Mavericks, but it is still likely that a team will give him a nice payday in spite of his recent struggles.
10 Tyson Chandler
When he was selected second overall by the Chicago Bulls in the 2001 NBA Draft, the expectation was that Chandler -- along with fellow lottery pick Eddy Curry -- would be a mainstay of the Chicago frontcourt for many years to come. Just 19 in his rookie year, Chandler showed flashes of the talent that made him worthy of being such a high draft selection, but struggled to earn playing time and averaged just 6.1 points and 4.8 rebounds per game.
Of course, it is not on offense that Chandler has truly shined as a pro, as the 2012 NBA Defensive Player of the Year and three-time NBA All-Defensive Team selection has made his mark in the league as an exceptional interior defender. As a rookie, however, his talents as a defender may have been somewhat evident, but it was obscured by the fact that he collected 4.6 fouls per 36 minutes, and his struggles to stay out of foul trouble seriously limited his time on the court.
9 Paul George
As a starter on a playoff team in his rookie season, perhaps it is somewhat unfair to say that George struggled during his debut year. That playoff team, however, was 37-45 in a weak Eastern Conference and lost to the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs. As a defender, George was clearly NBA-ready even as a rookie, but his offensive game lacked consistency and he found it difficult to get regular minutes with the Indiana Pacers throughout the 2010-11 regular season, especially during the early part of the year. Over the course of the year, he averaged just 7.8 points per game and 3.7 rebounds while seeing just 20.7 minutes per contest.
The 2013-14 season was a revelation for George, as he made his second consecutive All-Star team while averaging 21.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. He continued to build on his reputation as one of the league's best perimeter defenders, earning his second consecutive selection to the NBA All-Defensive Team. He also earned a place on the Team USA roster for the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup, but the devastating injury he suffered during a scrimmage kept him from playing in Spain and resulted in George missing all but six games of the 2014-15 NBA season.
8 DeMar DeRozan
DeRozan, an All-Star in 2014 and a Team USA selection that summer, struggled as a rookie in Toronto after being taken as the ninth overall pick out of USC. Known primarily as a scoring guard for the Raptors, DeRozan was unable to find regular time in the Toronto rotation and only scored 8.6 points per game while dishing out just 0.7 assists on average as a rookie. Incidentally, DeRozan was actually a much more efficient scorer as a rookie, shooting 49.8 percent from the field, though he was also only taking a little more than six shots per game.
7 Dirk Nowitzki
Given the circumstances, it is hard to fault Nowitzki for his rookie struggles. He played in just 47 games due to the strike-shortened 1998-99 season, and his youth and inexperience made him an easy target for the more athletic forwards he was tasked with defending on a nightly basis. He was such a poor defender that he was often chided by fans who referred to him as “Irk” instead of Dirk, because if there was no “D” in his game then there should be no “D” in his name.
During that first year, the 13-time All Star and NBA MVP would score 8.2 points per game and would pull down only 3.4 rebounds, all while shooting an uncharacteristic 40.5 percent from the floor and a shockingly low 20.6 percent from behind the arc. Now a future Hall of Famer, Nowitzki is considered one of the most important players of his generation, revolutionizing the way big forwards are used in the NBA. The cornerstone of the Dallas Mavericks franchise and undeniably one of the best players in NBA history, Nowitzki first appeared to be nothing more than a major bust to many during his rookie season.
6 Jimmy Butler
Another NBA star whose rookie season was affected by a lockout, Butler barely saw the court during his first season as a pro, averaging just 8.5 minutes per game. Given the limited playing time, it is not surprising that he averaged just 2.6 points and 1.3 rebounds per game. He earned more rotation minutes in his second NBA season in 2012-13, and by the end of the year he was a regular and valuable part of the Bulls’ rotation.
This past season, Butler has broken out in a big way, scoring 20 points per game and making his first All-Star team in just his fourth season as a pro. Considering how he was buried on the bench as recently as 2011-12, Butler’s ascension is as improbable as it is impressive. For his efforts, he was named the NBA Most Improved Player in 2015, just one season after earning his first selection to the NBA All-Defensive Team.
5 Deron Williams
Playing for the Utah Jazz and then-coach Jerry Sloan, Williams was shuttled from the bench to a starting role and then back to the bench during his first season. The third overall pick of the 2005 NBA Draft – one spot ahead of Chris Paul – Williams averaged 10.8 points per game and handed out 4.5 assists, playing 28.8 minutes per game and earning some consideration in the Rookie of the Year balloting while also being named to the NBA All-Rookie Team.
While his rookie performance earned him some accolades, Williams also posted a PER of just 12.4 (15.0 is league-average), and was not able to stay in the good graces of Sloan for very long during the season. Williams was much better in his second year in Utah, putting up 16.2 points and dishing out 9.3 assists while helping the Jazz to a 51 win season. Williams has since made three All-Star Game appearances and has competed in two Olympics for Team USA, going to Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012.
4 Joe Johnson
Johnson, the 10th overall selection of the Boston Celtics in the 2001 NBA Draft, got the full NBA experience in his first year, being traded to the Suns halfway through his rookie season for Tony Delk and Rodney Rogers. While this would ultimately come back to haunt the Celtics, part of the reason the trade was made – despite its obvious shortsightedness – was because Johnson had struggled somewhat as a rookie and the Celtics had a chance to make a deep playoff run in a weak Eastern Conference. The Celtics won 49 games that season and made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, but they gave up on Johnson far too early in order to do so.
As a rookie, Johnson saw very little action in Boston but enjoyed an expanded role upon his arrival in Phoenix. In total, however, Johnson still only managed 7.5 points and 3.3 rebounds in 24.9 minutes per game. He struggled from three-point range, connecting on just 29.2 percent of his attempts, but it would not be long before Johnson became one of the better players in the league. While his ability to be the focal point of an offense has been questioned throughout his career, Johnson is still a seven-time All-Star and has impressive career averages of 17.3 points, 4.2 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game.
3 Monta Ellis
Ellis is the only player on this list who has yet to make an All-Star team, but his status as one of the league’s best scorers over the past eight seasons warrants his inclusion. A second-round pick (40th overall) and one of the last prep-to-pro draftees in 2005, Ellis saw very little action for the Golden State Warriors as a rookie, appearing in just 49 games and scoring 6.8 points over 18.1 minutes per game. His role with the Warriors was so limited at first that Ellis did not score his first NBA points until December of his rookie year.
The differences between his rookie season and his sophomore campaign are striking, as Ellis put up 16.5 points per game while passing out 4.1 assists and shooting 47.5 percent from the field. For his efforts, Ellis was named the NBA Most Improved Player in 2007 and has since been one of the league’s most reliable scorers, but he has also developed a reputation as a volume shooter. While there were some shot-selection issues that became apparent during his time in Milwaukee, Rick Carlisle and the Mavericks seemed to have reeled Ellis in a bit so that he is a more efficient scorer for Dallas.
2 Jeff Teague
Teague earned his first All-Star appearance this past season while leading the Atlanta Hawks to the best record in the Eastern Conference, averaging 15.9 points and 7.0 assists per game for a surprising 60-win team. The Hawks’ star point guard is just a few seasons removed from a rookie year (2009-10) in which he struggled mightily, as he saw very little action (10.1 minutes per game) while scoring just 3.2 points per game and passing out a meager 1.7 assists per game. The 19th overall pick of the 2009 NBA Draft, Teague was inefficient from the field as a rookie, shooting 39.6 percent overall, and he was even worse from behind the arc, connecting on just 21.9 percent of his three-point attempts.
1 Steve Nash
Nash is only recently retired, last playing in the 2013-14 season and officially announcing his retirement this past season. As a rookie in the 1996-97 NBA season, not much was expected out of the little-known point guard from Santa Clara that the Suns had selected with the 15th overall pick. Nash did not play all that much, and in the little action he saw he averaged 3.3 points and 2.1 assists while shooting just 42.3 percent from the floor.
An eight-time All-Star selection and a two-time NBA MVP, Nash is widely regarded as one of the best point guards of the modern era. It was not until his fifth season in the NBA, however, that Nash really established himself, as his first four seasons saw him average 7.2 points per game and 3.8 assists while playing a little over 20 minutes per game. Despite those early struggles, Nash still managed to lead the league in assists in five different seasons and retired in third place in career assists with 10,335 -- trailing only John Stockton and Jason Kidd on the all-time list.
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