Top 10 Greatest Rookie Seasons in NBA History

| August 10, 2021 10:34 am PDT

During an NBA player’s rookie season, it’s usually a time to adjust to the transition from the amateur level to the pros. However, some players handle the transition much better than others and excel in their rookie campaigns.

Usually, the top NBA betting sites will allow you to bet on which players will break records in their first season, as well as who will win the NBA Rookie of the Year.

These ten players did a little bit of both and often much more.

With that in mind, I want to highlight some of the greatest rookie seasons in NBA history. Let’s move forward with the top 10 greatest rookie seasons in NBA history.

10. Larry Bird (1979)

Before Larry Bird even stepped foot in the NBA, he had an outstanding three-year collegiate career at Indiana State. In 1979, he led the school to the National Championship game with a 33-0 record, but they lost the game to Michigan State.

In three seasons at Indiana State, Bird averaged 30.3 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 4.6 assists.

Interestingly enough, the Boston Celtics actually selected Bird sixth overall in the 1978 NBA Draft, but he instead returned to school. They eventually signed him ahead of the 1979-1980 season.

While the Celtics were one of the most successful franchises in the NBA up to that point, they were coming off back-to-back seasons with less than 35 wins. However, Bird came in and completely changed the franchise.

He recorded a double-double with 14 points and ten rebounds in his debut. It only took 14 games for him to record his first career triple-double. In that game, he had 23 points, 19 rebounds, and ten assists.

Bird produced multiple high-scoring games along the way. He had a pair of 40+ point games with 13 rebounds in each game late in the season.

Here are his final numbers for that season:

  • 21.3 points
  • 10.4 rebounds
  • 4.5 assists
  • 40.6 three-point percentage

The Celtics finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference at 61-21. Bird made the All-Star team and won Rookie of the Year.

Unfortunately, Boston fell short in the playoffs that year, losing to the Philadelphia 76ers in the Conference Finals.

In the postseason, Bird averaged 21.3 points and 11.2 rebounds. However, his three-point shooting dropped below 30 percent.

Bird went on to have a Hall of Fame career with three MVP awards, three NBA titles, and 12 All-Star game appearances in 13 seasons. His great career all started with a fantastic rookie season.

To the shock of no one, Larry Legend also makes the cut for best March Madness performances of all time.

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9. Elgin Baylor (1958)

Elgin Baylor had a very successful two-year run at Seattle University. He led the team to the National Championship Game, where they lost to Kentucky. In his two seasons in school, he averaged 31.2 points and 19.8 rebounds.

Before the Lakers resided in Los Angeles, they called Minneapolis home. The Minneapolis Lakers selected Baylor with the first overall pick in the 1958 NBA Draft.

After going just 19-53 the season prior, the Lakers were in desperate need of a jolt. In fact, the Lakers franchise nearly went bankrupt before Baylor drew fans into the stadium with his playstyle.

Baylor was a massive part of L.A.’s turnaround, and some say he played a hand in saving the NBA in general.

In ten of his first 11 games, he recorded a double-double. That stretch included a 26-point, 3- rebound game against the Philadelphia Warriors. From there, he continued to put up more and more impressive stats.

He had 14 games with 20 or more rebounds while also recording 30 or more points in 21 games. Baylor had a season-high 55 points late in the season. He also recorded a triple-double earlier in the season with 37 points, 14 rebounds, and ten assists.

Baylor ultimately finished the regular season with 24.9 points per game and 15.0 rebounds per game.

The Lakers finished just 33-39, but that didn’t stop them from advancing all the way to the NBA Finals, where the Boston Celtics swept them in four games.

It was a rookie season full of accomplishments for Baylor. Just take a look at his resume for that season:

  • All-Star
  • All-Star Game MVP
  • Rookie of the Year
  • All-NBA First Team

Despite making the NBA Finals eight times in his 14-year career, Baylor never won a championship. Nonetheless, he did make the All-NBA First Team ten times and the All-Star team 11 times.

While his career stats are certainly impressive, maybe the most noteworthy thing he did was save the Lakers franchise.

8. Magic Johnson (1979)

Magic Johnson was yet another standout college player, but he had something no other rookie does. Johnson averaged 17.6 points, 7.9 assists, and 7.6 rebounds in two seasons at Michigan State.

In 1979, he led them to a National Championship over Larry Bird and Indiana State.

The Los Angeles Lakers drafted Johnson with the first overall pick of the 1979 NBA Draft. Most of the talk leading up to the draft was whether the 6’9” Johnson would play point guard or in a forward position. With his elite passing ability, Los Angeles put him at point guard.

It took Johnson just 12 games to record his first triple-double, and in that game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Johnson recorded 24 points, 16 rebounds, and 12 assists.

He never really had any high-scoring games in his rookie season, but everyone marveled at his all-around skill set. For the season, he averaged 18.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.3 assists, and 2.4 steals. He also shot 53.0 percent from the field.

Los Angeles went 60-22, making the playoffs as the number one seed in the Western Conference. They advanced all the way to the NBA Finals thanks to the combination of Johnson and center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

When Abdul-Jabbar went down with an ankle injury in Game 5, the Lakers made a bold move and started Johnson at center in Game 6. Los Angeles won the game to clinch the NBA Finals.

Here are Johnson’s stats from the impressive performance:

  • 42 points
  • 15 rebounds
  • 7 assists
  • 3 steals
  • 60.9 field goal percentage

Johnson went on to win Finals MVP by averaging 21.5 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 8.7 assists.

While his regular-season numbers may not be as impressive as those of other players on this list, he is the only rookie in NBA history to win Finals MVP. He went on to win four more NBA titles and three MVP awards.

7. Walt Bellamy (1961)

Walt Bellamy may be the least accomplished player on this list. That’s not a knock on him, but it just speaks volumes to how great everyone else in these top 10 NBA rookie season rankings was.

Bellamy was a force in his three seasons at Indiana University. In those three seasons at the school, he averaged 20.6 points and 15.5 rebounds. Bellamy still holds the Indiana University record for most double-doubles in a career with 59.

The Chicago Packers made the wise decision to select Bellamy with the first overall pick in the 1961 NBA Draft. He was an absolute powerhouse from the time he stepped foot in the NBA.

It’s hard to determine which game during Bellamy’s rookie season was the best because they were all outstanding.

I’m going to show his three best games in terms of points:

Opponent Points Rebounds
Los Angeles Lakers 48 14
Philadelphia Warriors 47 26
Boston Celtics 47 20

In total, he scored 30 or more points in 51 of Chicago’s 79 games that season. He also had 20 or more rebounds in 36 games.

According to Basketball-Reference, he recorded a double-double in 77 of 79 games his rookie season. However, his rebounding stat is blank for those other two games, so it’s possible that he recorded ten or more rebounds in both games.

We can’t forget this was the 1960s. They didn’t record stats like they do today.

For the season, he averaged 31.6 points and 19.0 rebounds. His points per game are second-most in a rookie season in NBA history.

Bellamy won Rookie of the Year and made the All-Star team.

The one downside to his rookie season is his team went just 18-61.

Despite only making four All-Star game appearances in 14 seasons, Bellamy is in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

While his team’s record was not good, Bellamy’s rookie season numbers may be as good as anyone.

6. Tim Duncan (1997)

Tim Duncan was never the flashiest player, but he is arguably the greatest power forward in NBA history.

In a time where most young stars were jumping straight from high school to the NBA, Duncan spent four years in college at Wake Forest. He got better and better in each season at school.

Over his four college seasons, Duncan averaged 16.5 points and 12.3 rebounds.

The San Antonio Spurs selected Duncan with the first overall pick in the 1997 NBA Draft. The Spurs were one of the most successful franchises at the time, but an injury to David Robinson the previous season led them to the number one pick.

Once Robinson and Duncan teamed up, the two made up one of the best front-court duos in the NBA.

Duncan immediately made an impact on the Spurs. In just his third career game, he pulled down a season-high 22 rebounds. He was an all-around force, especially on the defensive end.

He had five games his rookie season with at least seven blocks.

Here are his overall numbers for his rookie season.

  • 21.1 points
  • 11.9 rebounds
  • 2.7 assists
  • 2.5 blocks
  • 54.9 field goal percentage

San Antonio went 56-26 and returned to the playoffs behind the duo of Duncan and Robinson. They lost in the Conference Semifinals to the Utah Jazz.

Even with the playoff disappointment, Duncan had several accomplishments in his rookie season. He made the All-Star team, All-NBA first team, and won Rookie of the Year.

He spent his entire 19-year career with the Spurs. In that time, he won five championships and three Finals MVPs. Duncan had one of the best NBA Finals performances ever in 2003.

Duncan also won two MVPs, made the All-Star game 15 times, and made the All-NBA First Team ten times.

There’s no doubt that Duncan was the driving force behind the Spurs dynasty from the late 1990s through the early 2010s.

5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1969)

These all-time NBA rookie year rankings feature a lot of players who were excellent in college. However, I’m not sure anyone can match the accomplishments Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made in his three seasons at UCLA.

Playing under legendary head coach John Wooden, UCLA went 78-2 during Abdul-Jabbar’s three seasons with the team. They won the National Championship in all three seasons.

Abdul-Jabbar averaged 26.4 points and 15.5 rebounds in his time at UCLA.

There was little doubt when the Milwaukee Bucks came to the podium with the first overall pick in the 1969 NBA Draft.

They made the obvious choice and selected Abdul-Jabbar.

He hit the ground running with 29 points, 12 rebounds, and six assists in his debut. However, that was far from his best game. He had a season-high 51 points late in the season against the Seattle Supersonics. He also had a 46-point, 23-rebound game.

Overall, he finished the season with 28.8 points per game and 14.5 rebounds per game. Check out where his points per game ranked among other NBA stars that season:

  • Jerry West: 31.2 points
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 28.8 points
  • Elvin Hayes: 27.5 points
  • Billy Cunningham: 26.1 points
  • Lou Hudson: 25.4 points

The Bucks went from 27-55 to 56-26 and clinched a spot in the playoffs. While they fell short of making the NBA Finals, Abdul-Jabbar had an outstanding playoff run. He averaged 35.2 points and 16.8 rebounds, and he scored at least 27 points in all ten playoff games.

In this amazing season, he won Rookie of the Year, made the All-Star team, and made the All-NBA Second Team.

Abdul-Jabbar went on to win six NBA titles and six MVP awards in his 20 seasons in the league. As of writing this, he is the all-time leader in career points with 38,387.

There’s a reason people consider him one of the greatest NBA players of all time.

4. Wes Unseld (1968)

Wes Unseld’s rookie season numbers aren’t as impressive as everyone else in my top 10 NBA rookie season list, but he did something that only one other rookie has done in NBA history.

What did he accomplish? Keep reading to find out.

Unseld wowed in his three seasons at Louisville University. While the team was never really a factor in the NCAA Tournament, Unseld put up some big numbers. He averaged 20.6 points and 18.9 rebounds.

The Baltimore Bullets drafted Unseld with the number two pick in the 1968 NBA Draft. While the number one pick, Elvin Hayes, had a great rookie season himself, the Bullets didn’t get a bad consolation in Unseld.

In his first career game, he only had eight points but was a monster on the boards with 22 rebounds. That first game essentially foreshadowed the rest of his rookie season. He was never a high scorer, with just four games over 25 points. But he continued to dominate in the rebounding department all season.

He had at least ten rebounds in 76 of 82 games that season. That includes a pair of games with over 30 rebounds.

For the season, he had 13.2 points per game and a career-high 18.2 rebounds.

The great season allowed him to become the second rookie in NBA history to win MVP. He also won Rookie of the Year, made the All-NBA First Team, and made the All-Star team.

He completely turned around the Bullets franchise. Check out their record in the five seasons before they drafted Unseld:

Season Record
1963-1964 31-49
1964-1965 37-43
1965-1966 38-42
1966-1967 20-61
1967-1968 36-46

In Unseld’s first season with the team, they finished with the best record in the league at 57-25.

Unfortunately, the New York Knicks swept them in four games.

Unseld did win the NBA Championship in 1978 with the Washington Bullets. He also won Finals MVP.

3. Michael Jordan (1984)

Everyone knows that Michael Jordan is at the top of the board when it comes to the greatest NBA players of all time. But did you know he also had one of the best rookie seasons in NBA history?

Jordan didn’t have the biggest numbers in his three seasons at the University of North Carolina, but he had the accolades.

He won the National Championship his freshman year after hitting the game-winning shot.

He also won both the Naismith and Wooden Player of the Year Awards in his final season.

The Chicago Bulls drafted Joran third overall in the 1984 NBA Draft. Quickly, he made everyone realize just how great of a player he could be.

In just the ninth game of his career, Jordan had 45 points and ten assists against the San Antonio Spurs. As the season went along, Jordan continued to get better and better. He had seven games with 40 or more points, including a season-high 49 against the Detroit Pistons. Jordan also had three triple-doubles during the season.

Here are Jordan’s stats from a stellar rookie season.

  • 28.2 points
  • 6.5 rebounds
  • 5.9 assists
  • 2.4 steals
  • 51.5 field goal percentage

While the Bulls failed to reach .500 with a 38-44 record, they did make the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.

They lost in four games to the Milwaukee Bucks, but Jordan definitely impressed in the series with 29.3 points per game and 8.5 assists per game.

The great rookie season earned him Rookie of the Year and an All-Star game appearance.

And as for the rest of his career? Well, Jordan went on to win six NBA titles, winning Finals MVP in all of them. He also won five MVP awards, won a Defensive Player of the Year award, made the All-Star team 14 times, and made the All-NBA First Team ten times.

His unprecedented legacy started with one of the best rookie seasons in NBA history.

2. Oscar Robertson (1960)

Before Russell Westbrook came along, Oscar Robertson was the Triple Double King. Unlike Westbrook, though, Robertson’s triple-double pursuit started from the moment he entered the NBA.

Robertson was a menace in his three seasons at the University of Cincinnati. For his college career, he averaged an insane 33.8 points and 15.2 rebounds.

When we talk about high rebounding numbers, we’re usually talking about centers. Robertson was a 6’5” point guard.

There was an interesting rule in the 1960 NBA Draft that allowed the Cincinnati Royals to forfeit their original draft pick and select any player within a 50-mile radius. Because Robertson went to the University of Cincinnati, that made him eligible to play for the Royals.

It’s a bit confusing, but basically, the Royals selected Robertson with the first pick.

His triple-double run began in the first game of his career. He had 21 points, 12 rebounds, and ten assists. He continued his early-season success with four triple-doubles in his first five games.

His season-high in a game was 45 points (twice), 19 rebounds, and 20 assists. Overall, he had 26 triple-doubles in his rookie season.

Just look at how his triple-double mark compares to other rookies:

Player Season Triple Double
Oscar Robertson 1960-1961 26
Ben Simmons 2017-2018 12
Luka Doncic 2018-2019 8
Magic Johnson 1979-1980 7
Alvan Adams 1975-1976 5

Just for reference, Westbrook only had one triple-double his rookie season.

Robertson fell just short of averaging a triple-double his rookie season. Nonetheless, he still had impressive numbers, averaging 30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, and a league-leading 9.7 assists.

He won Rookie of the Year, made the All-Star team, and made the All-NBA First Team. The only knock on his season was that his team went 33-46 and missed the playoffs.

In his 14-year career, Robertson won MVP in 1964 and the championship in 1971. He also made 12 All-Star teams and nine All-NBA First Teams.

While his 181-career triple-doubles are no longer the most of all time, his record 26 in a rookie season still stands by a big margin.

1. Wilt Chamberlain (1959)

This selection wasn’t difficult. What Wilt Chamberlain did in his rookie season is something I don’t expect anyone to ever match.

Before Chamberlain broke numerous records in the NBA, he dominated college basketball in his two seasons at Kansas University. While he didn’t win a championship, Chamberlain averaged 29.9 points and 18.3 rebounds in his two seasons.

The Philadelphia Warriors selected Chamberlain with their territorial pick in the 1959 NBA Draft. He played for the Harlem Globetrotters for a season before joining the Warriors.

Once in the NBA, there was no stopping Chamberlain and his 7’1” frame.

In his NBA debut, he had 43 points and 28 rebounds. While that’s an amazing performance for today’s standards, that was just another game for Chamberlain.

His dominance over the NBA continued throughout his rookie season. He had five games with over 50 points and 25 games with 30 or more rebounds.

Overall, he finished the season averaging 37.6 points and 27.0 rebounds. Both stats are an NBA record for a rookie, and frankly, no one comes even close.

Here are the top three all-time marks in points per game in a rookie season.

  • Wilt Chamberlain: 37.6 points
  • Walt Bellamy: 31.6 points
  • Oscar Robertson: 30.5 points

And here’s the same for rebounds.

  • Wilt Chamberlain: 27.0 rebounds
  • Walt Bellamy: 19.0 rebounds
  • Wes Unseld: 18.2 rebounds

The Warriors made the playoffs with a 49-26 record but lost in the second round.

Chamberlain became the first rookie in NBA history to win MVP. He also won Rookie of the Year, made the All-Star team, and made the All-NBA First Team.

Chamberlain had way too many career accomplishments to highlight here, so I’ll just name a few. In his 15-year career, he won MVP four times and won the NBA Finals twice. He led the league in scoring seven times and led in rebounding 11 times.

Michael Jordan and LeBron James dominate the GOAT discussion, but Chamberlain may be the best among the rest.

Other Great NBA Rookie Seasons

  • Elvin Hayes (1968)
  • Shaquille O’Neal (1992)

While Wes Unseld won MVP as a rookie in 1968, Elvin Hayes’ numbers were just as good, if not better. He led the league with 28.4 points per game while also putting up 17.1 rebounds per game. Hayes made the All-Star team that season.

Shaquille O’Neal is right up there with Wilt Chamberlain as one of the most dominant centers in NBA history. In his rookie season, O’Neal set career highs with 13.9 rebounds per game and 3.5 blocks. He also averaged 23.4 points. The Orlando Magic increased their win total by 20 games his rookie season.

Both of these guys could easily be argued into my top 10 NBA rookie seasons, but I still stick by my list.

All of these guys went on to have Hall of Fame careers, and there is no denying that their first seasons in The Association were rather special.

Nicholas Sterling
Nicholas Sterling

Nicholas has been a Sports Writer with GamblingSites.com since May 2021. He has a rich sports background, writing about NASCAR, NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, Golf, etc. Nick is always ready for a new challenge.

He enjoys rooting on D.C. sports teams, including the Commanders, Wizards, and Capitals.

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