The best NBA rookie seasons involve generational talent players who adapted to the league quickly. These rookies picked up where they left off in college.
Best NBA rookie seasons
The first season is usually the time to adapt to NBA speed. However, some exceptional rookies broke the mould in their first year in the league. Some even won MVP and became an All-Star.
Here are the ten best NBA rookie seasons of all time.
10. Walt Bellamy
Statistically, Walt Bellamy is arguably the best on this list. He averaged a whopping 31.6 points and 19 rebounds per game on 51% shooting in his first year in the NBA. His points per game are second-most in a rookie season in NBA history.
Bellamy obviously lived up to the expectations when he came to the league. Before he was drafted, he was already putting up monster lines in Indiana University with 20.6 points and 15.5 rebounds per game.
The reason why he’s low on this list is that his play didn’t translate to winning. The Chicago Packers had a record of 18-61 in his rookie season. Still, Bellamy put up a legendary rookie campaign and is one of the underrated centers to ever play the game.
9. Wes Unseld
In college, Wes Unseld was already a force of nature with 20.6 points and 18.9 rebounds. The Baltimore Bullets took notice so they drafted him with the second overall pick in the 1968 NBA Draft.
Unseld averaged 13.2 points per game and a career-best 18.2 rebounds on 48% shooting. The numbers may not be enticing but his arrival helped turn around the franchise.
But what makes Unseld’s rookie campaign legendary was he won the Rookie of the Year and MVP award—the second player in NBA history to do so. This feat immortalized him as one of the best NBA rookies ever.
8. Larry Bird
Larry Bird came to the NBA looking like a superstar already. In his three seasons in college, he averaged 30.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 4.6 assists. The struggling Celtics were in dire need of help so they took him with the sixth overall pick.
In Bird’s first season, the Celtics finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference at 61-21. His arrival revitalized the franchise. He finished the regular season with averages of 21.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game.
While the C’s fell in the ECF, Bird’s dominance continued for the next decade.
7. David Robinson
It’s no secret that David Robinson is one of the strongest players in NBA history. His time in the Navy helped him develop an NBA-ready body capable of dominating whoever’s in the paint.
Robinson took the league by storm in his first year as he averaged 24.3 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 blocks per game. He also helped the Spurs improve from 21 wins to 56 wins in that year.
His arrival turned around the franchise to become a playoff-contending team for seven consecutive seasons. Robinson had one of the best NBA rookie campaigns ever.
6. Elgin Baylor
Before the franchise moved to Los Angeles, the Lakers were in Minneapolis back in the 1950s. They were struggling as a team and were desperately needing a spark. That spark turned out to be Elgin Baylor.
Baylor was selected first overall by the Lakers in the 1958 NBA Draft. He was already a star in college where he averaged 31.2 points and 19.8 rebounds.
In his first season, Baylor helped the Lakers improve to a record of 33-39 and reach the NBA Finals. He finished the regular season with averages of 24.9 points and 15 rebounds per game. That’s 15 rebounds a game for a 6’5″ forward.
Yes, they were swept by the Celtics but that ultimately started their decade-long rivalry. Baylor’s campaign was one of the best NBA rookie seasons of all time.
5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is arguably the most decorated player, whether in college or in the NBA. In his three years in college, Kareem won three NCAA titles and averaged 26.4 points and 15.5 rebounds. There was no doubt that the Bucks would use their first overall selection on him.
In his first year, Kareem averaged 28.8 points and 14.5 rebounds on 52% shooting. That season, he finished as the second-best player in points per game, behind Jerry West‘s 31.2 points per game.
All thanks to Kareem’s exceptional rookie campaign, the Bucks went from 27 wins to 56 wins and clinched a playoff spot. While they fell short in the playoffs, it showed the league the making of one of the best players to ever play the game.
Read more: Biggest draft night trades in NBA history
4. Michael Jordan
After his game-winning shot to win the NCAA championship, Michael Jordan quickly rose to stardom. He was then drafted third overall by the Chicago Bulls in the 1984 NBA Draft.
Once in the NBA, Jordan quickly adapted to its speed. He averaged 28.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 2.4 steals per game on over 50% shooting. This is just a glimpse of his brilliance for what’s yet to come over the next seasons.
Jordan led the Bulls to the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. While they lost in the first round, the world witnessed a superstar in the making in that season.
3. Magic Johnson
The Lakers liked Magic Johnson‘s size and all-around game. In college, Magic averaged 7.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 7.9 assists per game. This is the big reason they took him with the first overall pick in the 1979 NBA Draft.
His elite passing ability forced Los Angeles to name him as the point guard at 6’9″. They quickly reaped the rewards as his size allowed him to see the court better and make transition plays after a rebound.
In his rookie season, Magic averaged 18 points, 7.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists, and 2.4 steals per game on 53% shooting. But what makes his rookie campaign one of a kind was he helped Los Angeles become the number one team (60-22) in the Western Conference and ultimately, win the NBA championship.
In Game 6 of the NBA Finals, Magic dropped 42 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 steals on 60% shooting.
Magic’s freshman year locked him in as one of the best NBA rookies ever.
2. Oscar Robertson
Before Russell Westbrook, there was Oscar Robertson. The Big O was a triple-double machine right from the start. In his rookie year, he averaged video game-like numbers with 30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 9.7 assists per game on 47% shooting.
Robertson was already a star before he set foot in the league. In college, he averaged 33.8 points and 15.2 rebounds. The 15 rebounds a game was impressive for a 6’5″ guard.
He continued to put up monstrous lines in the NBA. Robertson had 26 triple-doubles in his rookie season—the most in NBA history for a rookie.
Even though the Royals went 33-46 and missed the playoffs, Robertson definitely had a terrific rookie campaign.
1. Wilt Chamberlain
No one could ever match Wilt Chamberlain‘s rookie season. There’s no doubt that he’s one of the most dominant players to ever play the game, and he started dominating in his first year.
The Philadelphia Warriors selected him in the 1959 NBA Draft. With his 7’1″ and 275-pound frame, there was no stopping him in the paint. Wilt averaged 37.6 points and 27 rebounds per game as a rookie. He had five games with over 50 points and 25 games with at least 30 rebounds.
With the way he dominated in his first season, Chamberlain became the first rookie in NBA history to win the MVP award. Even up to today, there’s no topping those accolades and numbers as a rookie.
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