With each new NBA season there are always dozens of fascinating plotlines to follow aside from who will be the last team left standing. One of these plotlines is how the crop of fresh faced new players will fare in their first campaign as an NBA player, as this is a notoriously challenging year for any player to go through. All the players from the new crop have to adjust to the NBA lifestyle, which means spending a great deal of time on the road and away from family and friends, media responsibilities, going from being one of the best players on the team to one that commands little respect, playing against the greatest players in the world night in and night out, and of course going through the tradition of rookie hazing.
Some players struggle in their rookie year and never take to the NBA, whilst some players will struggle in their rookie year but gradually adjust and improve as the years go by. There are some players however that hit the ground running and immediately make a positive impact on their team, and sometimes they even become the go to player almost from the get go. If you have a good rookie season then it is generally a good indication that you have the potential to succeed in this league, and with each new draft class there are usually a small group of players who will become important players. Ordinarily these will be the top few picks in the draft, but occasionally you will find second round picks who take to the NBA like a duck to water. Similarly there have famously been many top prospects that go highly in the draft and end up fading into obscurity after failing to make an impact. This just goes to show that the NBA is not for everyone, and it takes a certain type of character to survive and make an impact in your first year.
Here are the top 10 rookie seasons of all time. Honourable mentions: Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Blake Griffin, Walt Bellamy and Elgin Baylor.
10. David Robinson, 1989-90
Frustratingly for the Spurs, they would have to wait two years after drafting The Admiral until he joined their ranks, as he had to first finish his Naval commitment. He proved to be worth the wait however, as he averaged 24.3 PPG, 12 RPG, 3.9 BPG and shot 53% from the floor, but it was much more than his stats that made him so valuable.
His presence completely transformed the Spurs franchise, who went from a woeful 21-61 the year before to 56-26, an amazing 35-game improvement. Robinson won all of the Rookie of the Month awards, and clearly was the only candidate for the Rookie of the Year award. The Spurs were now a force to be reckoned with, and this was largely due to The Admiral’s size, athleticism, intelligence, defensive ability and maturity which he would continue to show throughout his stellar career.
9. Wes Unseld, 1968-69
To finish your first campaign as the Rookie of the Year is one thing, as it shows that you are the best player in your class and have adjusted to the NBA better than anyone else that year. This was not enough for Unseld, who astonishingly also won the regular season MVP award, demonstrating that he was the not only the best rookie that year, but also the best player in the entire league. Only the 2nd player to ever do this, I imagine quite a few players were embarrassed to be beaten for the MVP award by a rookie.
Selected by the Baltimore Bullets with the 2nd pick, Unseld would transform them into an above .500 team for the first time with 57 wins. He would average 13.8 PPG and 18.5 RPG in his first year and his dominance would see him take home the league MVP award ahead of the many superstars in the league at the time.
8. Tim Duncan, 1997-98
What seems like an eternity ago, the San Antonio Spurs selected Tim Duncan with the 1st pick in the 1997 draft. Playing next to David Robinson, this created arguably the greatest frontcourt the NBA has ever seen. Duncan averaged 21.1 PPG, 11.9 RPG and 2.5 BPG (leading the team in rebounds and blocks), and the Spurs won 36 more games than the previous year to give them to a 53-29 record.
Duncan’s dominant play won him Rookie of the Year, and he was also impressively selected to the All-NBA First team and All-Defensive Second team. He has sustained this level of excellence throughout his career and his numbers have remained similar, and the Spurs have benefited greatly from selecting him back in 1997. Few rookies have come into the league and played with as much composure, technical skill and intelligence as The Big Fundamental.
7. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1969-70
Known as Lew Alcindor at the time, it did not take Abdul-Jabbar long to make an impact in the NBA and few players have changed a team’s fortune as much as he did. Selected with the 1st pick in the 1969 draft by the Milwaukee Bucks, expectations were high after Abdul-Jabbar had dominated at both high school and UCLA.
He would not disappoint, as he would average 28.8 PPG and 14.5 RPG and we would guide the Bucks to a 56-26 record, 29 more wins than they had the year before. His dominance transformed the Bucks franchise, and with the addition of Oscar Robertson the next year they would become NBA Champions.
6. Larry Bird, 1979-80
Before the arrival of Larry Bird in Boston, things were bleak for the Celtics. They had finished the season with just 29 wins under their belt, and they desperately needed a change of fortune. With the 6th pick in the 1st round they selected Bird out of Indiana State, and what a smart move this turned out to be. Bird would first return to college to finish his senior year, and after this he was ready to begin his legacy in Boston.
The Celtics would finish his rookie season with an impressive 61 wins, and a lot of this would be down to Bird’s extraordinary play and particularly his shooting ability. He averaged 21.3 PPG and shot 41% from 3-point, whilst adding 10.4 RPG and 4.5 APG. Bird would win the Rookie of the Year award, beating a player that would go on to be his greatest rival, Magic Johnson. A year later, The Celtics would lift their first trophy since 1976 behind Bird’s stellar play. He would go on to become one of the all-time greats in NBA history.
5. Shaquille O’Neal, 1992-93
When most big men enter the league they will get beaten up on each night by the more established players, but when Shaq entered the league it would be him that would be throwing his weight around. Many people often forget about Shaq’s incredible athleticism in his younger days, but he used to run the floor with the guards and throw down thunderous dunks on anyone and everyone (including one which caused the stanchion to collapse on itself).
Coming out of LSU, O’Neal was selected by the Orlando Magic with the 1st pick in the 1992 draft. Shaq would dominate from the get go, averaging 23.4 PPG, 13.9 RPG and a monster 3.5 BPG (these would be career highs for rebounds and blocks). He won Rookie of the Year, was selected to the All-Star game and bullied every Big Man he came up against through his size, strength and athleticism. Shaq also turned the Magic into a .500 team, as the year before they could only manage 21 wins.
4. Michael Jordan, 1984-85
The Rockets and Blazers must still have nightmares to this day after passing up the opportunity to draft Jordan in the 1984 NBA draft, more so the Blazers, as the Rockets had a pretty good consolation prize in Hakeem Olajuwon. The greatest player, and maybe the most famous athlete of all time, went with the 3rd pick to the Chicago Bulls. He wasted no time starting his legacy, dropping 28.2 PPG (3rd in the league that year), 6.5 RPG, 5.9 APG and 2.39 SPG. Jordan would also score an impressive 49 points in one game, be voted a starter for the All-Star game and dazzle crowds each night with breathtaking plays.
More importantly, he would transform a Chicago team that only won 27 games the previous year and earn them their first playoff birth since 1981. They would be knocked out in the 1st round despite Jordan’s 29.3 PPG, but he would win Rookie of the Year and be selected to the All-NBA Second team. The Bulls couldn’t believe their luck that two teams passed up on Jordan, but not even they could have predicted what Jordan would go on to do for their franchise and the entire league.
3. Oscar Robertson, 1960-61
Generally, rookies will enter the NBA with areas of weakness in their game. This is expected, and over the years they will work hard to become more complete players with the help of the coaching staff. This was not the case for Big O however, who came agonizingly close to averaging a triple double in just his first campaign (he would achieve this in his sophomore year). Robertson averaged a mammoth 30.9 PPG, 10.1 RPG and 9.7 APG.
Selected with the 1st pick by the Cincinnati Royals, Robertson was Rookie of the Year, selected to the All-NBA First Team and won the All-Star MVP award. In his debut game, against the Lakers, Oscar Robertson dropped a triple double with 21 points, 10 assists and 12 boards.
2. Wilt Chamberlain, 1959-60
No player has dominated and caused so many problems for opponents as Wilt Chamberlain, whose size and athleticism made him completely unplayable. This was true from his first year, as he averaged a breathtaking 37.6 PPG and a monstrous 27 RPG. It is of course difficult to compare his stats with players in the modern era, but his dominance is truly remarkable and to do this straight out of college makes it even more impressive.
Chamberlain was selected by the Philadelphia Warriors in the 1959 draft with what was known as a “territorial pick”, where teams could select players within their territory. In his debut game against the Knicks, Wilt ‘The Stilt’ poured in 43 points and pulled down 28 rebounds, and he would not slow down after this. He became the first (of only two) players to win the Rookie of the Year and MVP award in the same year, and he also helped the Warriors turn around from being the worst team to the second best. His dominance helped them into the postseason, where he would meet the Celtics and Bill Russell for the first of many battles that these two endured.
1. Magic Johnson, 1979-80
For any NBA player it is hard to top winning the NBA Championship and the Finals MVP, and this is the dream of most players. Incredibly, this is something that Magic Johnson managed in just his first year. He was selected with the 1st pick in the 1979 draft by the Los Angeles Lakers, and it marked the beginning of a new era for the Lakers who also had a new owner, coach and several new players.
Magic would average 18 PPG, 7.3 APG, 7.7 RPG and 2.4 SPG, and alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the Lakers would go 60-22. It is in the postseason which makes his rookie year so extraordinary however, as the Lakers marched to the finals where they would face the 76ers. Abdul-Jabbar would dominate the first 5 games as they took a 3-2 lead, but a nasty ankle injury would keep him out of Game 6. At 6-foot-9, Magic would start the game at center, and astonishingly poured in 42 points and 15 rebounds in the series clinching win. Magic won Finals MVP and the Lakers would dominate for years to come behind his phenomenal play.
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