While it is different in the NFL, MLB and NHL, in the NBA, it appears as though players who make the jump from the amateur ranks to the professional level make more of an immediate impact than any other sport.
However, while many players can play their type of game that they did in college, it doesn’t take long for coaches to find the right game plan to shut down the players’ strong skillset. Whether it be not wanting to adjust or because they don’t have much else to their playing style, often times rookie seasons end up being the best in some players' careers.
However, just because your rookie year ends up being your most successful one, that doesn’t mean that you won't achieve levels of success throughout the duration of your NBA career.
As you will see when you check out the names on this countdown, there are a variety of different players on the list. Some are currently in the league today, while others floundered after succeeding in year one. Some players became more impactful players as their roles reduced, while others had to call it an early career due to injuries. Lastly, some players went on to make All-Star appearances, while others went on to win NBA Championships.
It doesn’t necessarily mean that you were a failure if your best year was your first. It just means that said players had to accept different circumstances as their careers went on. With that being said, here is a list of 15 players who happened to peak after their first season in the NBA.
15 O.J. Mayo
Shooting guard O.J. Mayo was regarded as the best amateur player in the nation, as he signed on with USC after a stellar high school career. However, it was obvious that Mayo would jump to the NBA after just one season as a Trojan.
After being drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves, Mayo and others were sent to the Memphis Grizzles for a package based around Kevin Love on draft day. In his rookie season, Mayo started all 82 games while proving to be a lethal scorer of the future, as he averaged 18.5 points per game to go along with four rebounds and three assists.
Although year two was a strong season, Mayo’s numbers dipped slightly across the board, and they have yet to regain form. Mayo has averaged no more than 12 points per game except for in 2012-13 as a starter with the Dallas Mavericks. Mayo’s decline has continued into this season.
14 Geoff Petrie
Yes, Geoff Petrie had a very successful career with the Portland Trail Blazers; however, none of his six NBA seasons were as strong as his first campaign in the league.
Having the ability to play either guard or forward due to his size, Petrie matched up well against most defenders in the NBA. During his rookie season, not only did Petrie average 24.8 points, five rebounds and three assists per game, but he was also the league’s Rookie of the Year and an All-Star.
Sure, Petrie averaged 24.9 points per game and was an All-Star in his fourth season; however, he just didn’t provide the same impact that he did as a rookie. Either way, Petrie is still regarded as one of the best Trail Blazers of all time, as his number 45 is retired by the franchise. Unfortunately, he was never able to produce as well as he did in year one.
13 Terry Cummings
Terry Cummings, a power forward by trade, had a very long 18-year career in the NBA. However, while his longevity proved that he had a place in the league for years, Cummings' first season was his best.
Playing for the then San Diego Clippers, Cummings averaged a double double in year one, as he impressed with 23.7 points per game while also securing nearly 11 rebounds per game. Due to his efforts, Cummings was the 1983 Rookie of the Year while also being named to the All-Rookie first team.
While his next seven seasons were above average (nearly 30 points and nine rebounds per game, two All-Star appearances), Cummings was never quite able to live up to his first year standards. On top of playing for the Clippers, Cummings also suited up for the Bucks, Spurs, SuperSonics, 76ers, Knicks and Warriors from 1982-2000.
12 Damon Stoudamire
Like both Geoff Petrie and Terry Cummings, point guard Damon Stoudamire had an overall very successful NBA career; however, also just like Petrie and Cummings, Stoudamire’s best season came as a rookie.
Having the distinction as the first ever draft pick by the Toronto Raptors, Stoudamire emerged as a premier point guard, as he was nicknamed Mighty Mouse due to his short size but quick speed. In year one, Stoudamire averaged 19 points and nine assists per game, while being named as the Rookie of the Year in 1996 while also being a part of the All-Rookie First Team.
Sure, Stoudamire’s second season was equally as impressive (20 points, eight assists per game), but his playmaking ability from his rookie year was never matched. Over the course of 13 seasons, Mighty Mouse suited up for the Raptors, Trail Blazers, Grizzles and Spurs. Stoudamire is currently a coach at the University of Memphis.
11 Adam Morrison
While playing for Gonzaga, small forward Adam Morrison projected to be a top-notch scorer at the next level. After being selected by the Charlotte Bobcats, his first year performance continued that sentiment.
While his season averages didn’t blow anyone away (12 points, three rebounds, two assists per game), it was apparent that Morrison not only would continue to improve, but also had what it took to make it in the NBA. Unfortunately, everything went downhill after that season.
Due to poor defense and injuries, Morrison was never able to regain his form from his rookie campaign. Playing only three seasons with the Bobcats and the Los Angeles Lakers, Morrison played in a total of 83 games before playing overseas. Even though his NBA career was a complete bust, Morrison took home two championship rings with the Lakers.
10 Ray Felix
The Baltimore Bullets chose Ray Felix, a 6-foot-11 center out of Long Island University, as the first overall pick. After one season, it appeared as though the Bullets had all the makings of a franchise center.
During his rookie campaign in 1953, Felix dominated the entire league, as he averaged a double double of 18 points and 13 rebounds per game, making the All-Star team and winning Rookie of the Year.
It could have been due to Felix not playing as many minutes as his first year, but his numbers declined over his nine-year career. Wrapping up his career with the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers, Felix never made it back to an All-Star game while averaging just 11 points and nine rebounds for his career.
9 Ralph Sampson
I’m sure many people are looking at this selection in a very confused manner. Yes, Ralph Sampson is an NBA Hall of Famer and one of the best during his era; however, if you look at the numbers, it does indicate that his rookie season was his best. This is strictly on a technicality.
After being drafted by the Houston Rockets, Sampson started all 82 games for the team, as he averaged 21 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks per game, all the while shooting .523 from the floor all season.
However, while he still put up tremendous numbers for the remainder of his NBA career with the Rockets, Warriors, Kings and Washington Bullets (15 points, nine rebounds per contest), Sampson was never able to match his production from his first season. Both the 11 rebounds per game and .523 shooting percentage were career highs.
8 Alvan Adams
Although Alvan Adams is considered as one of the best NBA players to ever don a Phoenix Suns uniform, it could be argued that he never matched his rookie year.
After being taken with the fourth overall pick in 1975, Adams made an immediate impact. During his first season, Adams averaged 19 points, nine rebounds and six assists, all of which were career highs. Just like many others on this list, the center both won Rookie of the Year and was a part of the All-Star team.
Adams continued to be productive over his 13-year career, as he not only averaged 14 points, seven rebounds and four assists, but he is also in the top five of multiple Suns franchise records. Yes, he was a very successful NBA player; but none of his seasons were better than year one.
7 Clark Kellogg
Many people know the name Clark Kellogg, as not only the voice of the NBA 2K franchise, but also as a part of CBS Sports, among others. However, he was also an NBA player.
After being chosen with the eighth overall pick by the Indiana Pacers in 1982, Kellogg impressed right out of the gate. Starting in every game he was dressed in that season, the power forward averaged 20 points and 11 rebounds per game, an effort that put him on the All-Rookie First Team.
Altough Kellogg’s numbers dipped, they continued to be strong at a steady pace, as he averaged 18 points and nine rebounds over the final three seasons of his career. Unfortunately, chronic knee problems forced Kellogg to retire.
6 Bill Cartwright
When you think of the name Bill Cartwright, what comes to mind is a player who was a great compliment and unheralded piece to the Chicago Bulls early 1990s championship years. However, the tall center’s best season came in year one as a New York Knick.
After being drafted by the team with the third overall pick in 1979, Cartwright emerged as one of the game’s best young centers. In 82 games, Cartwright averaged 22 points while grabbing nine rebounds and dishing out two assists per game. He also shot .547 from the field, earning Cartwright a spot at the All-Star team.
However, after that season, not only did Cartwright’s numbers drop, but he also never made an All-Star game again. Cartwright has stated numerous times that the individual success didn’t matter to him, and it was the championship rings that define who he is.
5 Tyreke Evans
Like O.J. Mayo, Tyreke Evans is still in the NBA today; however, also like Mayo, Evans has never replicated his rookie season that could only be seen as one of the all-time greats.
After being a force at the University of Memphis, the Sacramento Kings took Evans with the fourth pick in the 2009 draft. During the 2009-10 season, Evans averaged over 20 points per game while adding five assists and five rebounds, starting all 72 games he played in. His playmaking and versatility in playing the one, two or three made him look like a star for years to come, as he won Rookie of the Year, co-MVP in the Rookie Challenge and All-Rookie First Team.
Due to the unstable nature of the Kings organization, Evans never appeared comfortable, continuing to regress year after year. Now a member of the New Orleans Pelicans, Evans has looked closer to his rookie form, but still has struggled to meet those expectations.
4 Sam Bowie
While a majority of NBA fans only know the name Sam Bowie due to him being chosen over Michael Jordan, the center of the Portland Trail Blazers did have a very successful rookie campaign.
Making the All-Rookie First Team, Bowie scored an even 10 points (.537 shooting percentage) per game while averaging nine rebounds and three assists. While he put up more points in five other seasons while also averaging more rebounds in one other season, Bowie never put everything all together like he did in year one.
Sure, Bowie was successful over 10 years with the Trail Blazers, Nets and Lakers, but not only will he be known for being chosen before Jordan, but also as never being as good as year one.
3 Christian Laettner
When you think of Christian Laettner, you think of an all-time great Duke Blue Devil, member of the 1992 Dream Team and one of the best college basketball players of all time. However, the center also seemed primed to have a strong NBA career as well.
Taken by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the third overall pick in 1992, Laettner played both power forward and center as a rookie. That season, Laettner put up 18.2 points and nine rebounds – both career highs – while being named to the All-Rookie First Team.
Although Laettner was an overall success in his NBA career (he was an All-Star in 1997), he never looked like he did in college while in the pros. However, as a rookie, Laettner looked like he was well on his way to doing so.
2 Earl Monroe
When Ralph Sampson was put on this list, he appeared to be the only Hall of Famer that would be mentioned. However, that’s not the case, as Earl “The Pearl” Monroe also had his best season in year one, despite being known as one of the best NBA players in history.
As the Rookie of the Year and All-Rookie First Team member in 1968 with the Baltimore Bullets, Monroe had what could be seen as the most complete season he had in his career. Not only did The Pearl average nearly 24 points per game, but he also had six rebounds and four assists as he was splitting time between point guard and shooting guard.
Making a name for himself with the New York Knicks, Monroe went on to make four All-Star teams and won an NBA Championship in 1973 while averaging 19 points, three rebounds and four assists in his career. While he proved to be a bonafide scorer, it is obvious that he had the ability to be an overall playmaker; something he did in his rookie season.
1 Wes Unseld
There is no doubt that Baltimore Bullets franchise star Wes Unseld is regarded as one of the best NBA players – not only of his time, but also in the history of the game. What some may not realize, however, is that Unseld had possibly the greatest rookie season of all time.
In year one in the NBA, Unseld immediately became one of the best two-way players in basketball. The power forward/center averaged 14 points, 18 rebounds and three assists. Not only did his play make the Bullets go from last place the year prior to first place in his rookie season, but Unseld also was awarded the Rookie of the Year Award, an All-Star appearance, a spot on the All-NBA First Team while adding the league’s MVP Award for good measure – something only he and Wilt Chamberlain did as rookies.
Named as one of the best 50 players of all time, Unseld averaged a double double over his NBA career while also becoming a GM and head coach. However, there is no questioning that Unseld was at his best as a rookie.
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