who do you rank as “THE ALL-TIME GREAT” among the {10 best rookie seasons in NBA history, Ranked}

who do you rank as “THE ALL-TIME GREAT” among the {10 best rookie seasons in NBA history, Ranked}

Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan

The initial transition to the NBA is never easy as players acclimate to competing against the best athletes in the world. No matter if you are coming from college, the G League or a pro league in Europe, the NBA is a different animal. The league is home to the fastest, strongest, smartest and most skilled basketball players, and rookies almost always need time to adjust. But for an ever-decreasing few, that transition is almost seamless, leading them to excel right out of the game.

 

The 2023-24 season will intrigue fans as they see how star rookies like Victor Wenbayama, Chet Holmgren and Scoot Henderson adapt to the physical and mental rigors of the NBA. Could a generational prospect like Wembanyama possibly find his way onto this list a year from now? Until then, let’s rank the 10 best rookie seasons in NBA history.

 

10 best rookie seasons in NBA history, ranked

10. Wes Unseld — Baltimore Bullets, 1968-69

Unseld comes in at No.10 on our list, earning the accolade by being one of two players in league history to win Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in the same season. Unseld averaged 13.8 points, 18.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game in his pro debut, taking the Washington Bullets from sixth to first in the Eastern Conference. Unseld, notably, won these awards by averaging half the points and the same number of rebounds as the player who finished runner-up to him in Rookie of the Year voting. While his rookie season was certainly nothing to be ashamed, the nod in our rankings goes to the runner-up for Rookie of the Year in 1968-69…

 

9. Elvin Hayes — San Diego Rockets, 1968-69

The San Diego Rockets finished their first NBA season with a 15-67 record. They selected Elvin Hayes from the University of Houston with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1968 draft to turn the team around. It worked, as Hayes averaged 28.4 points, 17.1 rebounds and 1.4 assists as a rookie. The Rockets won 22 more games than the previous season and made the playoffs for the first time. Hayes’ scoring average was the fifth-best all-time for a rookie, and he is the last first-year player to lead the league in pints per game. He was runner-up in the Rookie of the Year voting to Unseld, who won both the MVP and Rookie of the Year despite Hayes’ far superior numbers and similarly stellar team improvement.

 

8. Larry Bird — Boston Celtics, 1979-80

Larry Bird, Celtics

 

Celtics fans will not be happy that Larry Bird lands at No. 8 on this list once they see who is listed next, but the only thing missing from Bird’s rookie season was an NBA championship. Larry Legend led the Celtics to a league-best 61-21 record and won the Rookie of the Year over college nemesis Magic Johnson. However, once the playoffs came, the first round of the Bird-Magic was won by Johnson when he led the Lakers to a championship. All signs were pointing to a Celtics-Lakers/Bird-Magic showdown in the NBA Finals, but Boston was upset by the Philadelphia 76ers in the Conference Finals. Bird finished his rookie season averaging 21.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game.

 

7. Magic Johnson — Los Angeles Lakers, 1970-80

It’s hard to separate the rookie seasons of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. They squared off in college, entered the league together and their careers intertwined for a decade as leaders of the Celtics and Lakers, the most storied franchises in league history even before they arrived. Bird may have taken Rookie of the Year, but the award Magic led his team to is the bigger deal. Johnson was behind the “Showtime Lakers,” the 6’9 point guard’s flashy style vaulting the Lakers to immediate title contention in 1979-80. He averaged 18.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 7.3 assists in his debut campaign. However, Johnson saved his best for last, stepping in for an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center in Game 6 of the NBA Finals and dropping 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists. Los Angeles won the championship, Johnson becoming the first and only player in league history to win Finals MVP honors.

 

6. Michael Jordan — Chicago Bulls, 1984-85

Michael Jordan

 

Michael Jordan wasn’t supposed to be the greatest player of all time. He came out of North Carolina as the third overall pick in the epic 1984 draft after being named the National College Player of the Year. His career immediately took off and triggered instant regret for the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers, who passed on him in the top-two slots. The Rockets were okay with their selection of Hakeem Olajuwon, but the Trail Blazers never recovered from taking Sam Bowie. Jordan was on the cover of Sports Illustrated two months into his rookie season and won Rookie of the Year. In 82 games, he averaged 28.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game.

 

5. Elgin Baylor — Minneapolis Lakers, 1958-59

Baylor was one of the greatest scorers in NBA history, and his rookie season was quite frankly underwhelming compared to the rest of his career. That doesn’t mean it was any less impressive, as he averaged 24.9 points, 15.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. For someone who averaged over 34 points per game in three seasons and 27.4 points per game in his career, Baylor’s rookie season was a sign of things to come. The Lakers were located in Minnesota and on the way to moving, but Baylor was the savior the franchise needed. In his rookie season, Baylor led the Lakers to the NBA Finals against the Celtics, kicking off the teams’ storied rivalry. Two years later, the Lakers moved to Los Angeles and drafted Jerry West, and Baylor’s career took off.

 

4. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — Milwaukee Bucks, 1969-70

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s career would end up being so much more than his performance on the court. People forget that his rookie season may have been one of his best. Playing as Lew Alcindor before going by his Muslim name in 1971, he averaged 28.8 points, 14.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game for the Milwaukee Bucks. They had a terrible prior season, and Abdul-Jabbar’s presence added 29 wins the Bucks’ record. Milwaukee’s fortunes had turned around, and the once-struggling franchise was now a title contender and in line to acquire superior talent who wanted to play with the reigning Rookie of the Year. The following season, the Bucks acquired Oscar Robertson, and Kareem won his first of six titles and his first MVP award.

 

3. Walt Bellamy — Chicago Packers, 1961-62

Bellamy is the only man to come near the marks set by Wilt Chamberlain in his first season, averaging 31.6 points, 19.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. No rookie has ever surpassed Bellamy’s 973 total field goals, and he also led the NBA with a 51.9% field goal percentage. He was recognized on a national stage when he played in the All-Star Game and scored 23 points and 17 rebounds. Before joining the NBA, Bellamy was the starting center on an Olympic basketball team that featured Jerry West, Jerry Lucas and Oscar Robertson.

 

2. Oscar Robertson — Cincinnati Royals, 1960-61

Robertson had the most triple-doubles in league history with 181 until Russell Westbrook broke his record. The original triple-double king was putting up those numbers from the early parts of his career. We should have seen the triple-double crown coming when he averaged 30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and 9.7 assists in his debut season with the Cincinnati Royals. Robertson’s presence was also impactful enough to add 14 wins to his team’s total from the past season. He was also named the All-Star Game MVP as a rookie, nearly notching a triple-double.

 

1. Wilt Chamberlain — Philadelphia Warriors, 1959-60

Kareem-Abdul-Jabbar-Wilt-Chamberlain

 

The NBA’s statistical god was up to his tricks from the moment he entered the league, averaging an astonishing 37.6 points, 27.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game as a rookie. Chamberlain made a career of recording absurd stat lines, and this was a precursor of what was to come. No rookie in history has ever averaged more points or rebounds in a single season, but Chamberlain did both in the same season. Unsurprisingly, Chamberlain also won the Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year awards. Chamberlain’s rookie season was not his first taste of professional basketball, as he played with the Harlem Globetrotters for a season before joining the NBA.

 

Nate Duffett is a writer for ClutchPoints and a sports junkie at heart, especially for the Boston sports scene. Whether it’s covering the NHL, MLB, NBA, NFL, or College Football and Basketball, there is not a sport Nate isn’t able to discuss.

 

 

Gideon Canice

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