The initial transition to the NBA is never easy as players adjust to competing against the best athletes in the world. Whether you come from college, the G League or the European professional leagues, 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-dwindling minority, the transition has been nearly seamless, making them stand out in the game.
The 2023-24 season will be of interest to fans as they will see Victor Wenbayama, Chet Holmgren and Scoot Henderson and how star rookies adapt to the physical and mental rigors of the NBA. A year from now, will a generational star like Wembunyama make it onto this list? Until then, let’s rank the 10 best rookie seasons in NBA history.
Ranking of the 10 best rookie seasons in NBA history
10. Wes Unseld – Baltimore Bullets, 1968-69
Unseld, who ranks No. 10 on our list, earned the honor as one of two players in league history to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season. Unseld averaged 13.8 points, 18.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists in his professional debut, leading the Washington Bullets from sixth to first in the Eastern Conference. Remarkably, Unseld won these awards while averaging half as many points and the same number of rebounds as the player who finished second in Rookie of the Year voting. While his rookie season was certainly nothing to be ashamed of, we ranked him as the runner-up for Rookie of the Year in 1968-69…
9. Elvin Hayes – San Diego Rockets, 1968-69
The San Diego Rockets ended their first NBA season with a record of 15-67. They turned the franchise around by selecting Elvin Hayes from the University of Houston with the first pick in the 1968 draft. The move worked, with Hayes averaging 28.4 points, 17.1 rebounds and 1.4 assists in his rookie season. The Rockets won 22 more games than last season and entered the playoffs for the first time. Hayes ranks fifth in rookie history in points per game and is the last first-year player to lead the league in points per game. He finished runner-up in Rookie of the Year voting, while Unseld won both MVP and Rookie of the Year, even though Hayes’ numbers were far above average and the team made equally impressive progress.
8. Larry Bird – Boston Celtics, 1979-80
Celtics fans won’t be happy once they see who’s next on this list, Larry Bird at No. 8 on this list, but the only thing missing from Bird’s rookie season is an NBA championship. Larry Legend led the Celtics to a league-best 61-21 record and defeated college nemesis Magic Johnson to win the Rookie of the Year award. However, once the playoffs arrived, Johnson led the Lakers to win the championship in the first round. All signs pointed to a Celtics vs. Lakers/Birds vs. Magic matchup in the NBA Finals, but Boston was defeated by the Philadelphia 76ers in the conference finals. Bird averaged 21.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game in his rookie season.
7. Magic Johnson – Los Angeles Lakers, 1970-80
It’s hard to separate Larry Bird and Magic Johnson’s rookie seasons. They bonded in college, entered the league together, and their careers intertwined over the course of a decade as leaders of the Celtics and Lakers, two franchises that preceded their arrival. It is the most legendary team in league history. Bird may have won Rookie of the Year, but the award Magic led his team to is more important. Johnson was the man behind “Showtime Lakers,” the 6-foot-9 point guard who led the Lakers to immediate championship contention in 1979-80 in flashy style. He averaged 18.0 points, 7.7 rebounds and 7.3 assists in his first season. However, Johnson saved his best performance for last, replacing the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center in Game 6 of the Finals and scoring 42 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists. Los Angeles won the championship, and Johnson became the first and only player in league history to win Finals MVP honors.
6. Michael Jordan – Chicago Bulls, 1984-85
Michael Jordan wasn’t supposed to be the greatest player of all time. Hailing from North Carolina, he was the third overall pick in the epic 1984 draft and was named the National College Player of the Year. His career immediately took off and immediately sparked regret for the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers, who passed him for the top two spots. The Rockets were happy with the selection of Hakeem Olajuwon, but the Trail Blazers never recovered from selecting Sam Bowie. Jordan appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated two months into his rookie season and won the Rookie of the Year award. In 82 games, he averaged 28.2 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists.
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5. Elgin Baylor – Minneapolis Lakers, 1958-59
Baylor is one of the greatest scorers in NBA history, and frankly, his rookie season was mediocre compared to the rest of his career. But that doesn’t mean his performance is any less impressive, as he averaged 24.9 points, 15.0 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. For a guy who averaged over 34 points per game in three seasons and 27.4 points per game for his career, Baylor’s rookie season was a sign of things to come. The Lakers are in Minnesota and in the process of relocating, but Baylor is the savior the team needs. In his rookie season, Baylor led the Lakers to the NBA Finals, where they faced the Celtics, kicking off a legendary showdown between the two teams. Two years later, Baylor’s career took off when the Lakers moved to Los Angeles and drafted Jerry West.
4. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — Milwaukee Bucks, 1969-70
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s career would ultimately extend far beyond his performance on the court. People forget that his rookie season was probably one of his best. In 1971, he played for the Milwaukee Bucks under his Muslim name, Lew Alcindor, averaging 28.8 points, 14.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. They were terrible last season, and the arrival of Abdul-Jabbar added 29 wins to the Bucks’ record. Milwaukee’s fortunes have turned around, and the once-floundering team is now a championship contender and is poised to acquire quality talent that wants to play with the reigning Rookie of the Year. The following season, the Bucks acquired Oscar Robertson and Kareem won his first of six championships and his first MVP award.
3. Walter Bellamy – Chicago Packers, 1961-62
Bellamy is the only player to come close to what Wilt Chamberlain set in his first season, averaging 31.6 points, 19.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists. No rookie has ever surpassed Bellamy’s 973 total field goal attempts, and he also led the NBA in field goal percentage at 51.9%. He was recognized on the national stage when he played in the All-Star Game and scored 23 points and grabbed 17 rebounds. Prior to joining the NBA, Bellamy was the starting center for the Olympic basketball team that included Jerry West, Jerry Lucas and Oscar Robertson.
2. Oscar Robertson — Cincinnati Royals, 1960-61
Robertson became the player with the most triple-doubles in league history with 181 until Russell Westbrook broke his record. The original triple-double king was already putting up those numbers early in his career. When he averaged 30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and 9.7 assists in his first season with the Cincinnati Royals, we should have seen a triple-double championship coming. Robertson’s arrival also brought enough influence to the team to add 14 games to his team’s win total last season. He was also elected All-Star Game MVP as a rookie and almost scored a triple-double.
1. Wilt Chamberlain — Philadelphia Warriors, 1959-60
The NBA’s statistics god has been working his magic from the moment he entered the league, averaging an astonishing 37.6 points, 27.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists as a rookie. Chamberlain had made a career out of recording ridiculous statistics, which was a harbinger of things to come. No rookie in history has averaged more points or rebounds in a season, but Chamberlain did both in the same season. As expected, Chamberlain also won the Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year awards. Chamberlain’s rookie season was not his first foray into professional basketball, as he played one season with the Harlem Basketball Team before joining the NBA.