LeBron. Carmelo. Darko. They've got a few things in common, coming into their rookie NBA seasons: 1) Names that couldn't have been invented by even the most skilled screenwriters, and 2) loads of hype and potential. But will any have good enough seasons to crack our list of the best NBA rookies ever?
1. Wilt Chamberlain, Philadelphia Warriors, 1959-60
MVP. Rookie of the Year. First-team All-NBA. Everyone expected Chamberlain to be an impact player, but he exceeded expectations by far -- setting an NBA record with 2,707 points (37.6 ppg) and another NBA record with 1,941 rebounds. The Warriors, who went 32-40 the season before Chamberlain arrived, went 49-26 and reached the Eastern Division finals before bowing to the Celtics, 4 games to 2.
|After winning top rookie in 1970, Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) won his first of six MVPs in 1971.|
2. Lew Alcindor, Milwaukee Bucks, 1969-70
Alcindor was the league's second-leading scorer (28.8 ppg), third-leading rebounder (14.5 rebounds per), and even dished 4.1 assists a game, better than, for example, Bill Bradley and Howard "Butch" Komives. Thanks to Alcindor, the Bucks flip-flopped their record, from 27-55 to 56-26.
The Bucks finished four games behind the Knicks, the eventual NBA champs, in the East, but they had a chance to win it all, and Alcindor was the reason why. "Now the Milwaukee starters can all relax and do their specialties behind Alcindor," wrote George Vecsey in the April 1, 1970 edition of the New York Times. "This has made better players of Jon McGlocklin, Flynn Robinson, and Fred Crawford … And Alcindor gets better all the time. 'He's got moves for a center I've never seen in all my years of playing, and he's only 22,' [Bucks head coach Frank] Costello said."
3. Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati Royals, 1960-61
Robertson came close to averaging a triple-double his first NBA season (he'd accomplish the feat the next year), scoring 30.5 points, grabbing 10.1 rebounds, and dishing out 9.7 assists per game. The first overall draft pick, Robertson won the All-Star MVP award, made first team All-NBA, and, of course, was Rookie of the Year. With Robertson, the Royals improved from 19-56 to 33-46.
4. Larry Bird, Boston Celtics, 1979-80
The year before Boston gave Bird the largest rookie contract in pro team sports history, the Celtics went 29-53. His first season, the Celtics went 61-21. No coincidence. Bird was All-NBA first team and averaged 21.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game. he shot 41 percent from behind the 3-point arc. In nine playoff games (the Sixers eliminated the Celts in the Eastern Conference finals) his stats were nearly identical. Bird was an almost unanimous choice for ROY, picked on 63 of 66 ballots -- not bad considering Magic Johnson was also a rookie that season.
|MJ still had hair during his rookie season.|
5. Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls, 1984-85
Third in scoring at 28.2 ppg. Also: 5.9 assists and 6.5 rebounds a game. Tenacious D: 196 steals, fourth in the league. But the raw stats don't really tell the story. Larry Bird told it, after the Bulls beat the Celtics early in the season. "I've never seen one player turn a team around like that," Bird said. "All the Bulls have become better because of him … Pretty soon this place [Chicago Stadium] will be packed every night ... They'll pay just to watch Jordan."
6. Elvin Hayes, San Diego Rockets, 1968-69
While Wes Unseld got all the love in 1968-69 (Rookie of the Year and MVP), Hayes outplayed him in just about every category. Hayes played 45.1 minutes a game for the Rockets, led the league in scoring with a 28.4 average, and was the fourth-leading rebounder with a 17.1 average. He started in the All-Star Game, and led the Rockets to a 37-45 season the year after the team had gone 15-67.
7. Wes Unseld, Baltimore Bullets, 1968-69
Only Wilt Chamberlain did it before; nobody's done it since (no, we're not talking about those numbers). In 1968-69, Unseld, a 6-foot-7-inch center, was named both the Rookie of the Year and NBA MVP. He averaged 13.8 ppg and finished behind only Chamberlain in the rebounds department, averaging 18.2 a game. He won two-thirds of the ROY votes; Elvin Hayes got the other third, and Unseld easily won the MVP vote over Willis Reed of the Knicks. Unseld wasn't spectacular, but he engineered a Bullets turnaround from 36-46 to 57-25, the best record in the NBA.
8. Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers, 1979-80
What can you say about Magic that hasn't been said before? In his first NBA game, Johnson was all high-fives and bear-hugs, bringing all kinds of energy to the Lakers. In his last NBA game of his rookie season, he took over for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at the "center" spot and put in one of the greatest performances in playoff history, scoring 42 points and grabbing 15 rebounds, as the Lakers won the NBA title. Along the way he averaged 18 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 7.3 assists per game, and started in the All-Star Game.
9. David Robinson, San Antonio Spurs, 1989-90
He was worth the wait: Robinson, a 7-foot-1-inch center drafted by the Spurs two years earlier, had to serve two years in the Navy before making his NBA debut. He averaged 24.3 points (10th in the league), 12 rebounds (second), and 3.89 blocked shots per game (third). Robinson made the All-Defensive second team, was named Rookie of the Year, and led the Spurs to the greatest turnaround in league history. in 1988-89, San Antonio went 21-61; with Robinson in 1988-89, the Spurs won the Midwest Division title with a 56-26 mark.
10. Shaquille O'Neal, Orlando Magic, 1992-93
Shaq was a force immediately upon joining the Magic as a 20-year-old, becoming the first rookie to be named Player of the Week in his first week in the NBA. Besides his raw basketball skills -- 23.4 points (8th), 13.9 rebounds (2nd), 3.53 blocked shots (2nd) -- he Q-Rated through the roof, and became the first rookie to be voted to start the All-Star Game since Jordan in 1985. Shaq also turned the Magic around. In 1991-92, Orlando had finished with a 21-61 record; in Shaq's first season, they went 41-41.
Also receiving votes:
Elgin Baylor, Minneapolis Lakers, 1958-59 (24.9 ppg, 15.0 reb, All-NBA 1st team)
Jerry Lucas, Cincinnati Royals, 1963-64 (17.7 ppg, 17.4 reb, All-NBA 2nd team)
Rick Barry, San Francisco Warriors, 1965-66 (25.7 ppg, All-NBA 1st team)
Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs, 1997-98 (21.1 ppg, 11.9 reb, All-NBA 1st team)