While baseball cards may be synonymous with the sports trading card industry for non-collectors, just about every major sport has its own market. Basketball in particular has a rich history in the hobby, dating back to the 1940s with cardboard collectibles depicting players from every era of the National Basketball Association.
More than a hobby, basketball cards can be looked at as investments or assets. Like baseball, old basketball cards weren’t cared for at nearly the level of that conscientious collectors look at them today, making the earliest cards of the biggest stars particularly valuable nowadays. It’s not just old cards that can command a premium, though, but also some newer releases of top tier stars that are released in limited number or that feature special attractions like autographs or swatches from game worn jerseys.
For any sports trading cards, the rookie cards are king, capturing players before they’ve proven themselves. Even for guys who had clear star trajectories like LeBron James or Shaquille O’Neal, there’s a difference between a potential big deal, and a proven star that can make their cards appreciate over time. All the more so, there are talents like Steph Curry whom there was reason to believe would be good, but few predicted just how successful or influential he would wind up being when his rookie cards were first issued.
This article takes a look at the best of the best—thirty NBA rookie cards that can now command a small—or not so small—fortune at auction.
30 Michael Jordan, 1986-87 Fleer
The 1986-87 Fleer is about as iconic as it gets in basketball card collecting. After a few-year gap without official, nationally distributed NBA cards, Fleer benefited from not only offering up rookie cards for that year’s freshman players, but also the recognized rookie cards for the players who had debuted in the intervening years. Thus, the set includes rookie cards for the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Isiah Thomas, Karl Malone, and Charles Barkley.
That list also includes Michael Jordan.
So it is that one of the most celebrated sets in all of cards includes a rookie card for the greatest player of all time. A mint condition copy can yield five figures at auction, with one rated PSA 10 even going for $100,000 in the early 2010s.
29 Steph Curry, 2009 Upper Deck Exquisite Collection
While Steph Curry was a first round NBA Draft pick in 2009, few predicted just how successful he would be at not only leading the Golden State Warriors to championships, but re-shaping the game given his unique offensive style. It’s little surprise that his rookie cards would be valued.
Upper Deck’s Exquisite Rookie Autograph Collection combined a premium brand with authenticated autographs and a limited edition release.
For Curry, there are only 225 numbered copies of this card. It’s already selling for five figures, and this card’s stock is likely to only rise over time.
28 Jerry West, 1961-62 Fleer
Jerry West is a unique basketball icon not only for his play and his decorated career as an NBA executive, but for his silhouette actually being used in the league’s official logo. For a player held in this high regard, and from an era before there were many serious, careful collectors, it makes perfect sense he’d have a highly valued rookie card.
Top condition copies of West’s card from the highly regarded 1961-62 Fleer set can draw solid five figure bids at auction.
27 Tim Duncan, 1997-98 Topps Chrome Refractor
Tim Duncan was a stable basketball superstar. He was a rare senior who stayed through his full four years at college, was selected at the top of his draft class, and went on to assemble a distinguished NBA career, bringing a total of five NBA Championships to San Antonio.
Duncan’s Topps Chrome Refractor rookie card marks a premium brand, using a particularly popular printing technology of its day for a rare and aesthetically pleasing card that can draw nearly $20,000 at auction.
26 George Mikan, 1948 Bowman
Before there were refractors, autographed inserts, or game worn jerseys sown into cards, the 1948 Bowman set represents basketball cards in a straightforward form.
George Mikan was the top player of those early days of NBA basketball, and scarcity of this card in top condition has made it the holy grail for basketball card collectors.
Even a roughed up copy of this card can cost collectors into the thousands of dollars, but those rare mint condition copies draw bids well into the hundreds of thousands.
25 Sam Jones, 1961-62 Fleer
Only three NBA players can claim to have won eight consecutive championships. They all played together for the Boston Celtics, and Hall of Fame shooting guard Sam Jones was one of them. He was known for his speed and scoring proficiency.
For Jones’s key part on one of the most legendarily successful teams in history, he has a well deserved honored place in the trading card hobby. His 1961 Fleer rookie card has purportedly gone for as much as $13,000 at auction.
24 LeBron James, 2003-04 Upper Deck Finite
LeBron James is not only widely regarded as the best active player in the NBA today, but is good enough to be in contention or greatest player of all time status. His willingness to move around and constantly pursue Championships has meant big things for his career thus far, and there’s every chance he’ll add to his legacy in Los Angeles, and perhaps thereafter.
James’s Upper Deck Finite rookie card is one of his tip top cards. Serial numbered at just two hundred copies, it’s a rare card from a top shelf brand.
23 Michael Jordan, 1984-85 Star
While the 1986-87 Fleer release is generally accepted as Michael Jordan’s official rookie card, in 1984 the Star company released its own card set with limited production and distribution that includes an earlier Jordan rookie card.
Some controversy persists as to which is the true Jordan rookie card, but regardless of whether you call it an RC or, as Beckett has termed it, an XRC, one simple fact remains: the Star card demands a premium.
It has drawn up to six figures at auction in mint condition.
22 Kobe Bryant, 1996-97 Topps Chrome Refractor
In between Michael Jordan and LeBron James reigning over the NBA, their was Kobe Bryant—quite arguably the best and highest profile superstar in the league.
Bryant had an uncharacteristically quiet first year in the NBA, coming off the bench and largely adjusting to the NBA style of play after moving up straight out of high school. He’d take off from there, though, and shrewd card investors recognized that they ought to hold onto his rookie cards. The Topps Chrome Refractor is quite arguably the best of the best from an era when different card brands were really exploding.
21 Larry Bird, Magic Johnson & Julius Erving, 1980-81 Topps
There’s a long tradition of cards that feature multiple players, and the 1980-81 Topps brand offered a unique entry into this style of release, with all cards featuring three players, with the ability for collectors to separate them along perforated lines and only save their favorites. The design created an even greater scarcity than usual for mint condition, full intact cards.
The fact that the this card is considered a rookie card for both Larry Bird and Magic Johnson makes it genuinely special, and having a third legend in Julius Erving as the additional piece only enhances its luster.
20 Bill Russell, 1957 Topps
There are legendary winners in the game of basketball, and then there’s Bill Russell, the Celtics’ standout center who above all else collected rings.
He led his team to eight straight Championships, and nine total for his career in an early bid for the NBA’s greatest star.
Russell’s 1957 Topps rookie card is a treasure. It was a short print card, besides coming from an era before cards were well cared for. It carries an estimated valuation around $85,000.
19 LeBron James, 2002-03 Topps Finest Refractor
Topps is one of the most traditional brands in sports training cards, and their Finest brand was what it sounded like—a truly premium brand. Add in the use of the popular refractor technology and a scarcity factory—giving these refractor inserts a limited serial number, and you have a recipe for some valuable cards.
Next, make one of them a LeBron James rookie card.
James’s 2002-2003 Topps Finest Refractor, limited to a release of just 250 copies, easily commands five figures at auction.
18 Nate Archibald, 1971 Topps
Nate Archibald is an all time great guard in the NBA, and particularly a legend of the 70s and early 80s, before Larry Bird and Magic Johnson captured the public’s imagination and took the league’s popularity to the next level.
A rookie card for a player like this will understandably have a high list value attached to it. The card, like a number of issues from the 1971 Topps set, tends to have centering issues, and finding a properly printed, cut, and preserved copy is a real challenge. A card that meets all of these conditions can draw in the thousands of dollars at auction.
17 Jim Pollard, 1948 Bowman
The so called “Kangaroo Kid,” Jim Pollard was an early star for the NBA. He gained particular notoriety for playing alongside all time great George Mikan to win championship after championship for the Minneapolis Lakers, accumulating five altogether in their time playing together.
Pollard’s rookie card comes from the same iconic set as Mikan’s, and while it can’t quite compete with Mikan’s legendary card that has been worth a fortune for some time, it’s nonetheless a pricey piece of cardboard.
A mint condition copy of Pollard’s rookie card can command over $5,000 at auction.
16 Pete Maravich, 1970 Topps
In an era long before highlight reels and flashy plays became NBA signatures, Pete Maravich was a guard ahead of his time. “Pistol Pete” was known for not only tremendous scoring prowess, but being a wildly creative passer and ball handler whose most imaginative moments on the court hold up as impressive to this day.
Maravich’s talent and style would make his rookie card valuable on their own. We can add on that in 1970 Topps chose to print its basketball cards in a taller than normal format, which made them all the less likely to be properly preserved and protected. Thus, a Maravich rookie card in pristine condition can draw well into the thousands of dollars at auction.
15 Clyde Lovellette, 1957 Topps
Clyde Lovellette’s name isn’t necessarily synonymous with basketball for contemporary fans, but he holds the undeniably impressive distinction of having been the first man to win an NCAA Championship, an Olympic Gold Medal, and an NBA Championship. This level of success for the center from the NBA’s early days shores up his place in basketball history and makes his trading cards a favorite among hardcore fans and collectors.
14 Steph Curry, 2009-10 National Treasures Century Platinum Autographed Patch
Steph Curry is justifiably one of the biggest stars in basketball today—a game changing scorer who has delivered championships to his team. Take a modern great, and it’s to be expected that his rookie card would be valuable. Apply a certified autograph to that card and it’s going to draw even more money.
Add on a swatch from a game worn jersey, all released by a premium brand? Well, that’s all a recipe for an elite basketball card.
This rare card can command well into five figures at auction and given Curry’s continued excellence and likelihood of only expanding his championship resume, the value of the card will probably only appreciate.
13 Elgin Baylor, 1961 Fleer
It’s telling how great the Lakers franchise has historically been that fans tend to readily think of at least a half dozen players before they recall Elgin Baylor. Yes, Magic Johnson, Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and now LeBron James to name just a few are marquee stars and all time greats. But Baylor is a legend in his own right—a tremendous scorer, a remarkable athlete, and a perennial All Star. He may well be the greatest Laker to have never properly won a championship with the team.
Baylor’s rookie card celebrates a great player and is hard to find in top condition, with PSA 9 copies drawing up to $20,000 at auction.
12 Lew Alcindor, 1969 Topps
Before he was known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lew Alcindor debuted in the NBA and promptly staked his claim as one of the top centers of his day, en route to one of the greatest careers in basketball history. His outstanding talent and longevity have made him a star whose notoriety persists long since his retirement.
The Alcindor rookie card from Topps is an oversized issue that makes it especially difficult to find without any bent corners or marks on its surface. In pristine shape, the card can draw over a $30,000 valuation.
11 Bob Pettit, 1957 Topps
Bob Pettit’s NBA resume is hard to touch. He was the first ever league Most Valuable Player, and is tied with no lesser star than Kobe Bryant for the most All Star Game MVP Awards (at four). The Hall of Famer played out his career as a key big man for the Hawks.
Pettit’s importance to basketball history makes his card a treasure, and it’s all the more valued nowadays for its scarcity, particularly in good to great condition.
Serious collectors with deep pockets will pay in the neighborhood of $5,000 for a clean copy of this card.
10 Shaquille O’Neal, 1992 Hoops Magic’s All-Rookie
While the Hoops brand isn’t necessarily synonymous with top shelf cards, their 1992 Magic’s All-Rookie Team set was a nice insert. Particularly in an era before basketball cards had truly exploded in popularity and brand diversity they would just a few years later, this wound up being one of the top sets of rookie cards for that year.
Shaquille O’Neal is that rare basketball star who wasn’t only good or popular, but a genuine crossover mainstream phenomenon. Based on just how much of a star he was—not to mention his career accomplishments on the court—his cards are likely to appreciate more over time. For now, this one which commands in the hundreds of dollars is one of the best of his cards available.
9 Bill Walton, 1974 Topps
In today’s basketball landscape, Bill Walton is known as an eccentric commentator and the father of Lakers coach Luke Walton. It’s telling that he’s remained a notable figure in basketball decades after he retired from the game. In his day, he was one of the most ferocious center who dominated at the collegiate level and went on to collect Championship rings and MVP honors twice in the NBA.
So, between his distinguished career on the court, and remaining a noteworthy figure long since hanging up his sneakers, it’s little surprise that his rookie card would be valuable. The 1974 Topps issue is a treasure that, in a well preserved state, can draw thousands of dollars at auction.
8 Bob Cousy, 1957 Topps
When we look back at legends of the Boston Celtics, Bob Cousy rates as one of the franchise’s most iconic point guards who helped steer the team to six of its championships in the 1950s and 1960s. He combined a traditional point guard’s passing sensibilities, while also passing in innovative ways that were ahead of their time.
Given the era and Cousy’s iconic status, he would of course have a highly sought after rookie card.
According to Old Sports Cards, inconsistent centering and print quality for the 1957 Topps set has made this card particularly difficult to find a perfect copy of. That means that the best remaining copies can draw into five figure bids at auction.
7 Rick Barry, 1971 Topps
Rick Barry made a name for himself as not just a great basketball player—and particularly impressive scorer—but for how he shot his free throws. Eschewing any stigmas about looking odd at the foul line, he shot underhanded and landed as one of the most successful free throw shooters of all time by percentage. He was vocal enough about this and other basketball philosophies to land as one of the biggest personalities of his era of basketball.
Barry’s rookie card is valued in the thousands of dollars when found in pristine condition, though ironically it captures him posed for a more traditional overhand shot.
6 Wilt Chamberlain, 1961 Fleer
Wilt Chamberlain may not have been the greatest basketball player who ever lived, but his impressive size and strength, basketball acumen, and larger than life personality made him one of the NBA’s biggest superstars in an era before basketball players were marketed as such. He was a true sports icon, and one of the definitive stars in shaping the in the NBA.
The size of Chamblerlain’s legend, paired with the early year when his rookie card came out make this issue from Fleer one of the most sought after cards from the sport. It can command upwards of $30,000 at auction today.
5 David Thompson, 1976 Topps
David Thompson parlayed a successful NCAA career into being one of the biggest stars of professional basketball—starting off with a bang when he was drafted number one into both the NBA and ABA, before choosing the ABA’s Nuggets to start his career. The NBA and ABA merged shortly thereafter, and Thompson carried on his decorated career in the pros.
While many basketball cards, even from this era, feature action shots, or at least posed images of players looking as though they’re about to shoot, Thompson’s rookie card doesn’t exactly inspire such excitement.
He’s rendered sitting on the bench, watching the action from the sidelines.
Despite this unusual choice, the aesthetics don’t diminish the player involved, and his card can still draw bids in the thousands of dollars at auction.
4 Jack Twyman, 1957 Topps
Jack Twyman may not be a household name nowadays, but in the 1959-60 season, he joined Wilt Chamberlain as the first players to ever average more than 30 points per game across an NBA season.
The small forward played 11 seasons in the pros before going on to a broadcast career.
Twyman’s 1957 Topps rookie card is a difficult one to find perfectly printed, and maintained in fine condition. Top copies of the card can draw over $5,000 at auction.
3 Carl Braun, 1948 Bowman
In the early days of the New York Knicks, Carl Braun led the team as a top scorer and star. A legend from this era is going to have a valuable rookie card, and the fact that his first card came out in the celebrated 1948 Bowman set only makes it more sought after.
While Braun’s rookie card won’t demand the kind of premium that George Mikan’s will, a rare mint condition copy of the card can register bids over $5,000 at auction.
2 Julius Erving, 1972-73 Topps
Julius Erving is one of professional basketball’s greatest legends. That’s in no small part due to the fact that he wasn’t only a great all around player, but led his teams to championships and exhibited a flashy enough style of play to appeal to casual fans and become a mainstream star.
Though Doctor J’s legacy is now largely synonymous with the Philadelphia 76ers, his rookie card captures him with the ABA’s Virginia Squires.
In pristine condition, the card can go for over $3,000 at auction.
1 Oscar Robertson, 1961 Fleer
Oscar Robertson’s legacy is that of not only an all time great basketball player, but a remarkably versatile player. Case in point, he became the first NBA player to ever average a triple double across an entire regular season.
Robertson’s 1961 Fleer rookie card is a treasure from an early era of NBA cards. According to Old Sports Cards, it can go for upwards of $20,000 when collectors are lucky enough to find a copy rated at PSA 9 or higher.