All-Time Top NBA Rookie Seasons
1. Wilt Chamberlain
In the 1959–60 NBA season, Chamberlain joined a Philadelphia Warriors squad that was coached by Neil Johnston; On October 24, 1959, Chamberlain made his debut as an NBA player (he played with the Globe Trotters from ’58-’59), starting for the Warriors. Chamberlain averaged 37.6 points and 27 rebounds, convincingly breaking any previous regular-season records. He needed only 56 games to score 2,102 points, breaking the all-time regular season scoring record of Bob Pettit, who needed 72 games to score 2,101 points. Chamberlain was named NBA MVP and Rookie of the Year that season, a feat only Wes Unseld would later match. In addition, Chamberlain won the 1960 NBA All-Star Game MVP award with a 23-point, 25-rebound performance for the East.
Simply put, the man was a beast. Without a doubt, the most dominating rookie campaign we’ve ever seen.
2. Oscar Robertson
We all know Robertson for averaging a triple-double during his ’61-’62 season, but he was pretty damn close to that feat in his rookie season too. Drafted by the Cincinnati Royals as a territorial pick in the 1960 draft, he averaged 30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and 9.7 assists (leading the league). No, those aren’t typos, that’s just how good he was.
He of course won Rookie of the Year, in addition to leading the West to victory in the ’61 all star game (23 point, 14 assist, and 9 rebounds). The only thing to frown upon during his rookie season was how poorly his team performed (33-46).
3. Walt Bellamy
I don’t think most NBA fans really know Walt Bellamy; in fact, I think few have even heard his name. Bellamy was a stud at Indiana University, leaving the most rebounds in a career with 1,088 in only 70 games, while averaging 15.5 a game. He also averaged 20.5 points a game there, while shooting 51.7% from the floor.
Bellamy the NBA first overall draft pick in 1961 (The Zephyrs), starting his extremely underrated 14-year career in the NBA. He was named the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1962 after having arguably one of the three greatest rookie seasons in NBA history, averaging 31.6 points and 19 rebounds per game. His 31.6 points per game average that season is second all-time for a rookie to Wilt Chamberlain’s 37.6, and the 19 rebounds per game he averaged that season is third best all-time for a rookie (to Chamberlain’s 27 and Russell’s 19.6). Bellamy also led the NBA in field goal percentage in his rookie season, and had a 23 point, 17 rebound performance in the ’62 All-Star Game. Some are quick to downgrade Bellamy since he played for a mediocre team, but we have to remember that the Zephyrs joined the league just that year. Bellamy played with the Chicago Zephyrs, which became the Baltimore Bullets for his first four seasons before he was traded to the New York Knicks a few games into the 1965-66 season.
4. Magic Johnson
Okay, now we’re getting to someone everybody knows. Statistically there are other rookies that could be higher than Magic on this list, but the fact that he led the Lakers to a championship his rookie year put him in my top five. Johnson was drafted first overall in 1979 by the Los Angeles Lakers.
In the ’78-79 season the Lakers finished runner up in the Pacific division to the Sonics but they ended up with the #1 pick … how does that work? Here’s how: When the Lakers had let Gail Goodrich go to free agency prior to the 1976-77 season, they had no idea how significant Goodrich’s departure would be for the team’s future. Because Goodrich signed with the New Orleans Jazz as a veteran free agent, the Jazz had to compensate the Lakers. New Orleans did so by giving Los Angeles three draft picks, including its first-round pick in 1979. When the Jazz (who moved to Utah in 1979) finished with the league’s worst record in 1978-79, the Lakers found themselves holding the No. 1 overall pick in the 1979 NBA Draft.
Johnson averaged 18.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 7.3 assists per game for the season, was selected to the NBA All-Rookie Team, and was named an NBA All-Star Game starter. Larry Bird won ROTY for the ’79-’80 season.
Magic and Kareem led the Lakers to a 60–22 record in the regular season and reached the 1980 NBA Finals, facing Dr. J and the Sixers. The Lakers were up 3–2 in the series, but Abdul-Jabbar, who averaged 33 points a game in the series, sprained his ankle in Game 5 and could not play the following game. Coach Westhead decided to start Johnson at center in Game 6, where Johnson put in 42 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 steals in a 123–107 win, seemingly playing every position on the court. Johnson became the only rookie to win the NBA Finals MVP award, and that performance is why he’s high up on this list.
5. Elgin Baylor
As a rookie in 1958-59, Baylor averaged 24.9 points and 15 rebounds per game. He poured in 55 points in a single game, then the third-highest mark in league history behind Joe Fulks’s 63 and Mikan’s 61. Baylor won the NBA Rookie of the Year Award and led the Lakers from last place (19-53) the previous year to the NBA finals, where they lost to the Boston Celtics. Baylor would go on to lead the Lakers to the NBA Finals seven more times.
I still think he’s one of the more underrated players, and should always be in the conversation of one of the greatest of all time.
6. Kareem Abdul-Jabar
Formerly known as Lew Alcindor, the big man followed his success at UCLA with a tremendous rookie season for Milwaukee. He averaged 26.7 points and 13.5 rebounds per game for the 56-26 Bucks. What makes Kareem’s rookie season interesting is the thought at how different it could have been. First, Kareem turned down a $1 million offer to play for the Globetrotters. Then, the Bucks won a coin toss against the Suns to get the 1st pick in the draft. And third, Kareem was also picked #1 in the ABA draft the same year by the Nets, but turned down that offer (a must read story in Simmons’ Book of Basketball).
Mr. Sky Hook turned a 27-55 team into a contender that year, immediately making his mark on the league. He went on to win Rookie of the Year, and would join forces with Oscar Robertson the following year.
7. Wes Unseld
Unseld’s stats won’t be as eye-popping as the others on this list, but trust me, there is a reason he made the top 10, and could even be in the top 5. Unseld helped lead the Bullets (who had finished in last place in the Eastern division the previous year) to a 57-25 record and a division title. Unseld averaged 14 points and18.2 rebounds per game that year, and became only the second player ever to win both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in the same season (Wilt Chamberlain being the other).
He was one of the best defensive players of his era, and in 1975, he led the NBA in rebounding (14.7 per game). The following season, he led the NBA in field goal percentage (.561). Famed for his accurate outlet passes (if you think Kevin Love is good, watch some Unseld highlights), Unseld made up for his lack of size (6’7”) with brute strength and sheer determination. He took the Bullets franchise to four NBA Finals, and won the ‘ship in 1978 over the SuperSonics, winning the Finals MVP.
8. Shaquille O’Neal
Can you diiiiiiig it?! Can youuuuuuu digggg it?! Big Shaq Daddy was selected 1st overall by the Orlando Magic in 1992. During his rookie season, O’Neal averaged 23.4 points on 56.2% shooting, 13.9 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks per game for the season. He was named the 1993 NBA Rookie of the Year and became the first rookie to be voted an All-Star starter since Michael Jordan in 1985.
Shaq’s impact on a failing Orlando franchise puts him in this list. He helped turn the Magic into a .500 team after going 21-61 the season before. We all know how memorable of a career the big fella had. I’d have to say he is the most entertaining figure the league has ever seen, for both his on-court and off-court antics.
9. Michael Jordan
During his first season in the NBA, Jordan averaged 28.2 points (51.5% FG), 6.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 2.5 steals per game. Air Jordan began receiving so much attention from the media and fans that other NBA players started becoming jealous (*cough, Isiah Thomas, cough*). Jordan would go on to win ROTY, but the team would finish with a pathetic 38-44 record.
I would write up Jordan’s career achievements, but I don’t think there is enough space for that. He went on to become arguably the greatest of all time, and became the benchmark for all our stars today. David Stern piggybacked on Jordan’s talent to market the NBA and turn the league into the international icon it is today.
10. Larry Bird
Larry Legend. The Boston Celtics selected the 6’9″ Bird 6th overall in the 1978 NBA Draft, even though they were uncertain whether he would enter the NBA or remain at Indiana State to play his senior season. Bird ultimately decided to play his final college season (choosing college over NBA … whaaaaat??), but the Celtics retained their exclusive right to sign him until the 1979 NBA Draft, because of the NBA’s “junior eligible” rule that existed at that time.
Bird agreed to sign with the Celtics for a $650,000/year contract, making him the highest-paid rookie at the time in NBA history. The Celtics were 29–53 during the 1978–79 season, but Bird’s presence on the team improved them to 61–21 in the 1979–80 season, posting the league’s best regular season record. He averaged 21.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game, going on to win the ROTY award over Magic.
Boston was beaten by the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference finals that year, but Bird’s addition to the team had renewed the tradition of winning Boston was used to.
Honorable Mentions: David Robinson, Tim Duncan
I wanted to put D-Rob on the top 10, but didn’t know who to knock off. I think it works out though because I get to group the twin towers together. Robinson averaged 24.3 points, 12 rebounds and 3.9 blocks per game. He led the Spurs to a 56-26 record, eventually losing in the Western Conference semifinals to the Trail Blazers. Timmmmaaay averaged 21.1 points, 11.9 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game, en route to a 53-29 Spurs record.
Just wanted to point out that in David Robinson’s rookie season, he lead the Spurs to the greatest turn around in NBA history; 10 years later, Tim Duncan broke David Robinsons all time NBA season turn around record.
“I stand 5′ 7″ and a quarter,
But, boy, when I reach for that thing
I’m taller than Yao Ming”
Saigon – ‘Stocking Cap’