Slam Dunk! The Best NBA Rookies Of All-Time

Basketball | 3/24/21

Being a rookie in the NBA comes with high expectations. When a player like Zion Williamson is taken with the first overall pick, he is expected to make an immediate impact. While injuries held Zion back, other rookies prove that they should have been drafted higher. These are the best rookie seasons in NBA history!

Larry Bird Made Boston An Instant Title Contender

larry bird celtics
Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Larry Bird may be most famous for his time spent as an Indiana Pacer (and his career with the team after retiring), but that doesn’t mean he fell flat as a rookie with the Celtics. Bird entered the NBA like he was shot out of a cannon, turning the Celtics into an instant NBA Title contender.

Bird helped lead the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals and won Rookie of the Year honors.

Magic Johnson Won A Title

magic johnson as a rookie
Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Entering the NBA the same year as Larry Bird, Magic Johnson may not have won Rookie of the Year, but he arguably won the more important prize. Johnson proved invaluable to the Los Angeles Lakers, not only helping the team reach the NBA Finals but also winning the championship.

Johnson was named the NBA Finals MVP, proving his value to the team. After a long career with the Lakers, he got into business with the team as a high-powered executive.

Shaquille O’Neal Put Up Career Best Numbers As A Rookie

shaq as a rookie with the orlando magic
Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

One of the greatest big men to ever step on the court, it was obvious from his rookie season that Shaquille O’Neal was special. He reached career-highs in blocks, rebounds, and games played as a rookie, even making a run for MVP and just coming up short.

Shaq would go on to win four NBA titles, be named the NBA Finals MVO three times, and is the reason backboards in the NBA were redesigned because he kept breaking them.

Wilt Chamberlain Averaged 37.6 Points-Per-Game

Wilt Chamberlain tying his shoes as a rookie
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As a rookie with the Philadelphia Warriors, Wilt Chamberlain was sensational. Not only did he finish the season averaging 37.6 points-per-game, but he was also named the NBA MVP. He is one of two rookies to ever receive the distinguished honor.

Chamberlain wasn’t “soft” either. He took a beating and shot so many fouls as a rookie that after the season he told reporters he was considering retiring. Chamberlain ended up playing 14 seasons and is considered to be one of the greatest players ever.

Oscar Roberston Recorded A Triple-Double In His First Game

oscar robertson as a rookie
Sporting News via Getty Images/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images
Sporting News via Getty Images/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

Oscar Robertson was the first player in NBA history to record a triple-double for an entire season. Anyone who watched him during his rookie season, specifically his first game, probably wasn’t surprised when it happened.

In his NBA debut, Robertson recorded a triple-double. By the time his rookie season was over, he averaged 30.5 points-per-game, 10.1 rebounds-per-game, and 9.7 assists-per-game. In his sophomore season, he was finally able to complete the trifecta. The only other player to average a triple-double for a full season is Russell Westbrook.

David Robinson’s Rookie Year Came Two Years After He Was Drafted

david robinson san antonio spurs
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Focus on Sport/Getty Images

David Robinson was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs two years before he ever stepped on the court for them. Before his rookie season, he was drafted into the military and had to fulfill his obligation.

Robinson was worth the wait for the Spurs, though. He played in 82 games as a rookie and was named the NBA Rookie of the Year by a unanimous vote. Interestingly enough, because Robinson didn’t sign a contract before entering the military, he could have re-entered the NBA Draft instead of joining San Antonio.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Started His Career With A Different Name

kareem abdul jabbar
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Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played in the NBA for 20 seasons. In his iconic rookie season, however, he went by Lew Alcindor. Drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks, Alcindor averaged 28.8 points-per-game as a rookie with 14.5 rebounds-per-game.

In his sophomore season, he won the NBA Championship with Milwaukee. In 1975, the Bucks somehow let Abdul-Jabbar leave, and he spent the rest of his esteemed career with the Lakers. Overall, he won six NBA Championships and was a 19-time all-star.

Elgin Baylor Literally Saved The Lakers

Elgin Baylor Holding Basketball and posing for a picture
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

When Elgin Baylor skipped his senior year of college to enter the NBA, the Minneapolis Lakers couldn’t have been happier. The team was on the verge of declaring bankruptcy, and Baylor’s arrival as a rookie quite literally saved the franchise.

Baylor’s rookie season saw him finish second in the NBA in scoring. He led the Lakers to the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Boston Celtics. The year before Baylor arrived, Minneapolis finished in last place.

Wes Unseld Was The NBA MVP As A Rookie

wes unseld as a rookie
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Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Wes Unseld is one of two rookies in NBA history to win the league’s MVP award his first year. Unseld, drafted by the Baltimore Bullets, played in 82 games and averaged 18.2 rebounds-per-game.

Unseld made his impact on the defensive glass and recorded 22 rebounds in his very first game. He played for the Bullets his entire career, which included a trip to the NBA Finals in 1978. The team’s veteran leader, he was named the NBA Finals MVP.

Tim Duncan Was Named “All-NBA” As A Rookie

tim duncan as a rookie
Getty Images/Sporting News
Getty Images/Sporting News

Tim Duncan was named to his first of 13 All-NBA Teams as a rookie. The first overall pick in the 1997 NBA Draft by the San Antonio Spurs, he played his entire career with San Antonio, winning five NBA Championships along the way.

In his rookie season, Duncan averaged 21.1 points-per-game and 11.9 rebounds-per-game. He appeared in all 82 regular-season games and was named the NBA Rookie of the Year.

Walt Bellamy Holds The Rookie Field Goal Record

walt bellamy atlanta hawks
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Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Walt Bellamy entered the NBA in 1961, playing in 79 games, averaging 31.6 points-per-game, and 19 rebounds-per-game. He also was deadly accurate, cashing in on 52 percent of his shot attempts.

The volume Bellamy shot the ball was extremely high, making his field goal percentage even more impressive. That first year, he set the record for field goals record with 973. He still holds the record today, a fact that easily earned him his spot on this list.

Rick Barry Averaged 25.7 Points-Per-Game

rick barry with the warriors
Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Rick Barry was drafted by the Warriors in 1965 and didn’t disappoint. He averaged 25.7 points-per-game with 10.6 rebounds-per-game while playing in 80 of 82 contests. When awards were handed out at the end of the year, he was named to the All-NBA Team.

Barry was excellent for the Warriors, and in 1975 helped lead them to one of the biggest upset in NBA Finals history. The team swept the Washington Bullets, and Barry was named the NBA Finals MVP.

The Legend Of Michael Jordan Started His Rookie Season

michael jordan
Scott Cunningham/Allsport/Getty Images
Scott Cunningham/Allsport/Getty Images

This list wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of arguably the greatest NBA player of all-time – Michael Jordan. He averaged 28.2 points-per-game as a rookie and scored on 51.5 percent of his field-goal attempts.

Jordan was named an Eastern Conference All-Star his rookie season, too, and unknowingly started a rivalry with Isiah Thomas. While Thomas might tell you he ultimately got the last laugh, Jordan would probably tell you the story differently. He does have six rings to back him up, after all!

Ralph Samson Was Billed As The Next Wilt Chamberlain

 Ralph Samson
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Ralph Samson was taken with the first overall pick in the NBA Draft by the Houston Rockets in 1983. Standing seven feet and four inches tall, he was billed as the Wilt Chamberlain.

Samson was spectacular as a rookie. He played in 82 games and averaged 21 points-per-game. Unfortunately, his career never lived up to the hype. He would play for several teams over nine seasons, retiring in 1992 as a member of the Washington Bullets.

Larry Johnson Was Tough As Nails

larry johnson
Mitchell Layton/Getty Images
Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

By the end of his career, Larry Johnson was known for his long list of injuries. But as a rookie, no one could deny his toughness. He played in 82 games and averaged 11 rebounds-per-game. As far as the Charlotte Hornets were concerned, they got a steal with the first overall pick in the draft.

Sadly, half a decade into his career, chronic back injuries became his downfall. The issues started shortly after he signed a 12-year, $84 million contract – the richest ever given at the time.

Blake Griffin Brought The Clippers Back To Life

blake griffin with the clippers
Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

After being taken with the first overall pick by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2009, Blake Griffin had to sit out what would have been his rookie season with an injury. When he came back a year later, he transformed the Clippers into a perennial playoff contender.

Griffin averaged 22.5 points-per-game as a rookie over 82 games. Known as a member of “Lob City,” when Griffin was on his game, the Clippers were unbeatable.

Ben Simmons Was A Defensive Stud

ben simmons
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Ben Simmons was taken first overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2016, but like Blake Griffin, was forced to sit out his first year with an injury. When he was finally able to play in 2017, his defensive skillset proved invaluable to the team.

Simmons averaged 8.1 rebounds-per-game his rookie season to go along with 15.8 points-per-game. He has been named an all-star in three of four eligible years and in 2020 was named to the All-NBA Team and the All-NBA Defensive Team.

Chris Paul Was A Complete Player As A Rookie

chris paul of the hornets
Bob Leverone/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images
Bob Leverone/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images

Chris Paul entered the NBA in 2005. He was drafted by the New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans) and played in 78 games, averaging 16.1 points-per-game. He also averaged an elite 7.8 assists-per-game, which was the lowest number of his career until 2019.

Just about the only thing Paul has not yet accomplished since his rookie season is winning a championship. He’s a ten-time All-Star, a nine-time All-NBA Team selection, and was named the 2006 NBA Rookie of the Year.

Karl-Anthony Towns Has Lived Up To The Hype

karl anthony towns
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The Minnesota Timberwolves are one of the unluckiest franchises in NBA history. When they drafted Karl-Anthony Towns in 2015, they were hoping their luck would change. The young star was named the Rookie of the Year and averaged 18.3 points-per-game.

Minnesota has failed to surround Towns with talent that matches his skill set, and he has still persevered as an NBA star. Twice he has been named an All-Star, and in 2018, was named to the All-NBA Team.

Damian Lillard Was A Franchise Star From Year One

daniam lillard of the trail blazers
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers got everything they could have asked for and more from Damian Lillard when they drafted him in 2012. In his first game, the star scored 20 points and had 10 assists, becoming one of the three NBA players in his debut to pull of the feat.

Lillard has been named an All-Star five times, was the 2013 NBA Rookie of the Year, and proven time and time again he plans to stay loyal to the team that drafted him and not chase a ring somewhere else.