History has shown that supposed learning curves are merely stepping stones for elite NBA rookies. That was the case during the 2017-18 campaign when a Philadelphia 76ers guard produced the Association's best rookie season of the decade, at least. Granted, there's no guarantee any reigning or future Rookie of the Year will go on to win MVP honors or be remembered as an all-time great of the sport. Like in life, unforeseen events occur in sports, and they can stall a promising young talent before he truly begins his journey.
Amazingly, a pair of rookies outperformed Ben Simmons during the 2018-19 season. Less than two years into his North American pro career, Luka Doncic looks like the greatest European basketball export anybody has seen. Trae Young, meanwhile, is an elite scorer who probably needs to give the Atlanta Hawks better defensive efforts but who is also an All-Star before his 22nd birthday. It’s a matter of when, not if, one of those two competes for the MVP Award.
The Association’s future is bright, indeed.
Nine times out of 10, Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young would’ve won Rookie of the Year for his production during the 2018-19 season. He averaged 19.1 PPG, and he led all first-year pros that season with 8.1 AST. Some, such as Donnell Suggs of Atlanta Magazine, argued Young deserved Rookie of the Year over Luka Doncic. Young didn’t earn that honor, but he could be as good, if not better, than the Slovenian.
Before our very eyes, Luka Doncic went from being the greatest 19-year-old in NBA history to the greatest 20-year-old to ever play in the Association. Observers and fans expected big things from the European after he averaged 21.2 PPG, 7.8 REB, and 6.0 AST as a rookie. Few, if any, foresaw Doncic posting 30.6 PPG, 9.9 REB, 9.6 AST, and 1.5 STL 19 games into his second season. Doncic turns 21 years old in February. Will he celebrate by winning MVP a couple of months later?
Was Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons the greatest rookie in NBA history? It's a question asked by Michael McGarry of The Press of Atlantic City, ESPN panelists and others. The winner of the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year award started 81 games that season and averaged 15.8 PPG, 8.2 APG, 8.1 RPG, 1.7 STL and 33.7 MIN. Per NBA.com , Simmons was only the second rookie to tally at least 15.0 PPG, 8.0 RPG and 8.0 APG. The other? Oscar Robertson.
No disrespect to Indiana Pacers guard Tyreke Evans, but we won't be mentioning him as an all-time great a decade from now or at any point down the road. Still, nobody can take his outstanding rookie season away from him. When Evans, with the Sacramento Kings for 2009-10, averaged 20.1 PPG, 5.8 APG and 5.3 RPG, he joined Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James as the only rookies to post a 20-5-5 campaign, as explained by Greg Wissinger of Sactown Royalty. He hasn't come close to averaging 20 points over a season since his debut year.
Long before younger fans knew Mark Jackson as an ESPN personality, he was one of the greatest distributors in the history of the league. As a first-year pro in 1987-88 with the New York Knicks, the guard set a single-season rookie record for assists, according to Yes Network, and he averaged 13.6 PPG, 10.6 APG and 2.5 STL en route to winning Rookie of the Year. He sits fourth all time in career assists.
According to ESPN's Pedro Moura, Blake Griffin's streak of double-doubles during his rookie campaign ended at 27 games on a January evening. According to SI.com , that was the longest streak for a rookie since 1968. Griffin, then with the Los Angeles Clippers, averaged 22.5 PPG and 12.1 RPG his first season. Just as importantly to that franchise, he helped make the Clippers must-see TV for a period of time.
Depending on your age, you may associate Alonzo Mourning with the Miami Heat. His Hall of Fame career began with the Charlotte Hornets in 1992-93 when he averaged 21 PPG, 10.3 RPG and 3.5 BLK. Only Hakeem Olajuwon had a higher block percentage that season. Mourning missed out on Rookie of the Year, finishing second in voting behind maybe the most physically dominant big man in league history.
We largely remember Allen Iverson's rookie year for the diminutive guard hitting a nasty crossover on Michael Jordan. It's a fun memory, but don't think Iverson's debut season was mainly about one highlight. As Bleacher Report's Zach Buckley noted, A.I. became the first rookie in league history to score 40 or more points in five straight games. "The Answer" averaged 23.5 PPG, 7.5 APG and 2.1 STL in 1996-97.
Hakeem Olajuwon probably would have won Rookie of the Year in 1985 had he not entered the NBA the same season as a guy named Michael Jordan. "The Dream" nevertheless became an instant force as the second part of the "Twin Towers" duo. Olajuwon started 82 games as a rookie, and he averaged 20.6 PPG, 11.9 RPG and 2.7 BLK. He led the NBA in offensive rebounds (440) that season.
Ranking Bill Russell's rookie season among the best in NBA history is difficult because he featured in only 48 games with the Boston Celtics due to his commitment to playing in the Olympics. When on the court, Russell provided glimpses of what was to come over the next 13 years. In 1956-57, Russell led the league in total RPG (19.6), and he added 14.7 PPG. As much as we enjoy watching Mr. Westbrook, it's Bill who remains the greatest Russell to ever play in the Association.
Ralph Sampson became the first half of the previously mentioned "Twin Towers" when the Houston Rockets drafted him first overall in 1983. The Rockets won only 29 games that year, but Sampson earned Rookie of the Year honors for averaging 21 PPG, 11.1 RPG and 2.4 BLK across 82 starts. As ESPN's Jordan Burton wrote in 2016, injury woes ultimately robbed Sampson of what should have been a prime career for the ages.
Maurice Stokes could have been an all-generational talent had an unfortunate tragedy that occurred during his third season not cost him his career and, later, his life. With the Rochester Royals during the 1955-56 campaign, Stokes, the Rookie of the Year for the season, led the league total RPG (16.3), and he averaged 16.8 PPG. He was averaging 18.1 rebounds per contest in March 1958 when he suffered the brain injury that left him paralyzed and ended his playing days.
The 1963-64 Cincinnati Royals featured Oscar Robertson, Wayne Embry and Jack Twyman when Jerry Lucas won Rookie of the Year in 1964. Lucas was never going to outscore "The Big O" that year, but he led the league in field-goal percentage and true shooting percentage, and he averaged 17.7 PPG and 17.4 RPG. In February 1964, he set a record for a forward by grabbing 40 rebounds in a single game, as explained by Off Tackle Empire.
Arguably no rookie in league history was more hyped ahead of his debut than LeBron James was leading into the 2003-04 campaign. The teenager who would become King made history his first year with the Cleveland Cavaliers, becoming the youngest player to tally 40 points in a single game, per ESPN, and also the youngest-ever Rookie of the Year after he averaged 20.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.9 APG and 1.6 STL. At the time, the then-19-year-old was the third rookie to ever average 20-5-5.
San Antonio Spurs legend Tim Duncan really was "The Big Fundamental" from his early days with the franchise starting in the fall of 1997. The first overall pick of the 1997 NBA Draft started 82 games and averaged 21.1 PPG, 11.9 RPG and 2.5 BLK. As explained by NBA.com, Duncan, who topped the league in defensive win shares, was named Rookie of the Month every month of the season. Imagine not voting him Rookie of the Year.
In 1969, Wes Unseld of the Baltimore Bullets became the second man in league history to win Rookie of the Year and MVP the same season. The first to do so may still be responsible for the league's greatest-ever rookie year (more on him later). Unseld averaged 13.8 PPG and 18.2 RPG, the latter being good for fifth-best in the league that season. He was second in defensive win shares behind only Bill Russell.
Patience truly was a virtue for the San Antonio Spurs, as the franchise was forced to wait two years to see David Robinson on the court because his commitments to the Navy made the first pick of the 1987 NBA Draft unavailable until 1989. Robinson exceeded expectations as a rookie, as "The Admiral" averaged 24.3 PPG, 12 RPG and 3.9 BLK. That season's Rookie of the Year was named to his first of 10 All-Star Game appearances.
Shaquille O’Neal's rookie season wasn't his best; he went on to win four rings, after all. He did, however, post 13.9 RPG and 3.5 BLK, career highs, and the Rookie of the Year for the 1992-93 season added 23.4 PPG. Shaq also led the NBA in turnovers, but, hey, nobody's perfect.
According to NBA.com , only Wilt Chamberlain scored more points, averaged more PPG and grabbed more rebounds in a rookie year than Chicago Packers big man Walt Bellamy. That's decent company. Bellamy, Rookie of the Year for the 1961-62 season, averaged 31.6 PPG and 19 RPG, and he led the league in field-goal percentage and true shooting percentage.
Of course the G.O.A.T. was going to check in on the list. Michael Jordan, drafted after both Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie (whoops), led the NBA in points and offensive box plus/minus as a rookie, and he averaged 28.2 PPG, 6.5 RPG and 5.9 APG while shooting over 51 percent from the field. "His Airness" started 82 games for the Chicago Bulls that year.
Maybe the greatest one-on-one rivalry in NBA history began during the 1979-80 season when the next two individuals spotlighted in this piece battled over the Rookie of the Year Award. Boston Celtics sharpshooter Larry Bird won this contest, as he averaged 21.3 PPG and 10.4 RPG to earn the trophy. Bird also shot 40.6 percent from beyond the arc, third-best in the league, and he finished No. 1 in defensive win shares.
Magic Johnson couldn't defeat friend and rival Larry Bird in the race for NBA Rookie of the Year. Johnson merely had to settle for becoming the first (and only, to date) rookie to win NBA Finals MVP, according to Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic, after he replaced an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at center for Game 6 of the championship series. During the regular season, Johnson averaged 18 PPG, 7.7 RPG and 7.3 APG.
It's not a stretch to say the Los Angeles Lakers wouldn't exist as we know the franchise today had Elgin Baylor not helped save the Minneapolis Lakers in the late 1950s. Baylor averaged 24.9 PPG and 15 RPG during the 1958-59 campaign, and the Rookie of the Year guided the struggling franchise to the NBA Finals. He finished the campaign fourth in points and PPG, third in RPG and ninth in assists.
Only Walt Bellamy (2,495) and Wilt Chamberlain (2,707) scored more points as a rookie than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — known as Lew Alcindor at the time — notched during the 1969-1970 season. That same year, Abdul-Jabbar led the league in points and field goals, and he finished second behind only Jerry West (31.2) in PPG (28.8) and second behind Elvin Hayes (44.7) in MPG (43.1).
It's cute that people wanted to compare Russell Westbrook with Oscar Robertson after Russ averaged a triple-double, something Westbrook has achieved twice. Robertson nearly did it as a rookie when he averaged 30.5 PPG, 10.1 RPG and 9.7 APG. "The Big O" still has the third-highest PPG average for rookies in league history, and he finished the 1960-61 season as the league leader in assists, APG, true shooting percentage and offensive win shares.
As is often the case in NBA discussions, the debate over the greatest rookie season in history begins and ends with Wilt Chamberlain. The Rookie of the Year and MVP for the 1959-60 season averaged 37.6 PPG and 27 RPG, both league bests, and he still holds the records for most points, highest PPG average and most points in a single game among rookies. That season Chamberlain also led the league in minutes played (tied with Gene Shue), MPG, field goals, field-goal attempts, free-throw attempts, total rebounds, player efficiency rating, win shares and win shares per 48 minutes. Ridiculous doesn't even begin to describe Wilt's debut campaign.
Zac Wassink is a football and futbol aficionado who is a PFWA member and is probably yelling about Tottenham Hotspur at the moment. Erik Lamela and Eli Manning apologist. Chanted for Matt Harvey to start the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 2015 World Series at Citi Field. Whoops. You can find him on Twitter at @ZacWassink.