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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
8 DeMar DeRozan
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
2 Jeff Teague
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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