Top Rookie Seasons in Celtics History
Jayson Tatum surpassed all expectations during his first season with the Boston Celtics, putting forth one of the best all-around rookie performances of the 2017-18 NBA campaign.
So, that got us thinking – where does his inaugural success rank among the achievements of all the great Celtics rooks that came before him?
Looking back over last 70-plus seasons, Boston has seen an abundance of strong rookie campaigns, many of which helped set the table for Hall-of-Fame careers. After digging through numbers and evaluating overall impact, here’s how Tatum’s opening act stacks up among them.
5. Jayson Tatum – 2017-18
Entering the 2017-18 season, it was unclear how big of a role Jayson Tatum would have with the Celtics. Yes, he was the No. 3 pick of the 2017 Draft, but he was also joining a stacked roster. So, earning significant minutes as an inexperienced 19-year-old would be one heck of a challenge.
However, a season-ending injury to star forward Gordon Hayward on Opening Night would open up the door for Tatum. And he walked right through and seized the opportunity.
Tatum would wind up starting a team-high 80 games during the regular season, while tallying 13.9 points per game, 5.0 rebounds per game and 1.6 assists per game. He also connected on a franchise record 105 3-pointers on a team-leading 43.4 percent clip – the fifth-highest mark of all time by an NBA rookie.
As nice as those statistics were, there may be a few eyebrows raised at the fact that Tatum made this list over the likes of Paul Pierce (16.5 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 2.4 APG in 1998-99) and Antoine Walker (17.5 PPG, 9.0RPG, 3.2 APG in 1996-97). But Tatum earned his ranking in the postseason – a stage that neither Pierce nor Walker had the opportunity to venture to following their respective rookie campaigns.
Tatum took his game to a completely different level during the 2018 Playoffs, leading a Celtics team that was lacking Hayward and star point guard Kyrie Irving all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. He averaged a team-high 18.5 PPG and came just one point shy of Kareem Abdul-Jabaar’s rookie postseason scoring record of 352 points, while also tying Abdul-Jabaar’s rookie playoff mark of 10 20-point games.
Tatum's arc of development covered incredible altitude over the duration of his rookie season, as his status went from being a question mark on Day 1 to becoming a star by the end of the postseason.
4. Dave Cowens – 1970-71
There are players, like Tatum, who experience a rising arc of progression throughout the course of their rookie seasons, and then there are others who start off with an instant bang.
Dave Cowens’ first-year experience fell into the latter category.
Boston drafted the 6-foot-9 center fourth overall in the 1970 Draft, and he made an immediate impact during his debut performance, tallying 16 points and 17 rebounds on Opening Night against the New York Knicks.
That effort offered a perfect glimpse of what Celtics fans would see out of Cowens all season long. He went on to average 17.0 PPG and 15.0 RPG during the 1970-71 season, while appearing in 81 contests for the C’s. He would wind up being named co-Rookie of the Year, along with Portland guard Geoff Petrie.
To this day, Cowens stands as one of six rookies to average at least 17 PPG and 15 RPG, along with Elgin Baylor, Walt Bellamy, Wilt Chamberlain, Elvin Hayes and Jerry Lucas.
Cowens and the other five players on that list also have another thing in common: Each one of them lived up to the hype of their rookie campaigns by going on to produce Hall-of-Fame careers.
3. Bill Russell – 1956-57
Bill Russell’s commitment to the United States national basketball team at the 1956 Summer Olympics delayed the start of his rookie season by nearly two months, but he proved to be more than worth the wait.
After captaining Team USA to a gold medal, Russell joined the Celtics in late December and put on one of the most dominant defensive rookie seasons of all time, all while helping to lead Boston to its first NBA title.
Over 48 regular season contests, Russell averaged 14.7 points and a then-rookie record of 19.6 rebounds per game, which has only been surpassed by Wilt Chamberlain (27.0) RPG).
Russell took his rebounding prowess to new heights once the Playoffs rolled around, upping his average to 24.4 RPG, while also tallying 13.9 PPG and 3.2 APG. During 10 postseason games, he corralled 244 total rebounds – a rookie record that still stands today.
The 6-foot-10 center saved his best playoff effort for last – a 19-point, 32-rebound effort against the St. Louis Hawks during Game 7 of the 1957 NBA Finals. Russell played 54 minutes during the double-overtime thriller, while guiding the C’s to a 125-123 win for their first title in franchise history.
2. Tom Heinsohn – 1956-57
As phenomenal as Russell’s first NBA season was, there was another rookie on that 1956-57 Celtics team that made even more of an impact. That player is the same man that you hear calling Celtics game on TV today.
Tom Heinsohn kicked off his Hall-of-Fame career like no other rookie in NBA history. He averaged 16.2 PPG and 9.8 RPG, while becoming the first, and only, rookie ever to be named an All-Star, Rookie of the Year and win and NBA title all in the same season.
He was also the only Celtics player on that inaugural championship team to play all 82 regular season and playoff games.
The postseason is where Heinsohn truly shined. He averaged a team-best 22.9 PPG along with 11.7 RPG to help pave the way for Boston’s first championship. And he saved his best performance of the season for last – a 37-point, 23-rebound Game 7 effort that helped seal the title for the C’s and kick-start an illustrious career.
1. Larry Bird – 1979-80
From 1975 to 1979, the Celtics experienced a rare period of decline. Fortunately, a legend was waiting in the wings to help carry the franchise back toward the sky.
Larry Bird had been drafted by the C’s with the No. 3 overall pick in the 1978 Draft, but opted to remain at Indiana State for one final season. He led the Sycamores to the NCAA title game during that 1978-79 campaign, while Boston had its worst season (29-53) in 29 years.
However, Bird would bring his winning ways to Boston for the 1979-80 campaign, guiding the C’s to 61 regular season wins for an incredible 32-game turnaround.
That season, the 6-foot-9 forward established a Celtics rookie scoring record of 21.3 PPG – a mark that no other Boston rook has ever come close to touching. He also tallied 10.4 RPG, 4.5 APG and 1.7 steals per game, while setting a then-Celtics rookie passing record of 370 assists.
Bird remained incredibly consistent come playoff time, as the C’s transitioned into the postseason for the first time in three seasons. During nine games, he averaged 21.3 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 4.7 APG and 1.6 SPG – a near-mirror image of his regular season numbers.
His success paved the way for a first-round sweep of Houston, which propelled Boston into the Eastern Conference Finals. The C’s would lose the ECF to Philadelphia in five games, but the birth of a legend – and the greatest rookie season in franchise history – gave the team plenty of reason to celebrate, as it emerged into another era of greatness.