2023-24 NBA Awards

Ranking the 15 best rookie seasons in NBA history

Examining the stats, history and achievements of 15 standout first-year players in their debut NBA season.

A look back at some of Shaquille O'Neal's rookie season highlights in Orlando.

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Victor Wembanyama, cornerstone of the San Antonio Spurs’ future, was the runaway winner for the NBA’s 2023-24 Kia Rookie of the Year Award. With his 7-foot-4 height and perimeter ball skills, he turned in one of the most compelling and impressive first-year performances in recent memory.

He did not, however, have the “greatest rookie season ever.”

That sort of social media-type claim quickly gets deflated when exposed to the light of perspective and facts. Some folks’ “ever” covers an awfully short time frame. Recency bias can be strong.

And there’s always another “cutest baby ever” coming along because the previous ones grow up and get evaluated in the context of their full careers.

With a focus on history, stats and achievements by a player in his debut season, here is our ranking of the Top 15 Rookies in NBA history:

1. Wilt Chamberlain, Philadelphia Warriors | 1959-60

Stats: 37.6 ppg, 27 rpg, 2.3 apg
Achievements: MVP, ROY, All-NBA (1), All-Star.
Impact on winning: +17

There are reasons the league named the Rookie of the Year award in Chamberlain’s honor, lots of them. The numbers he put up in Year 1 have stood up for 65 years — his scoring average as a rookie remains the fifth highest in history, period (he had three of the other four, too), his rebounding average is second only to his work in Year 2. In fact, in games that season against arguably the NBA’s greatest defender, Chamberlain’s numbers went up (39.1, 29.5). He was named the league’s MVP and also earned All-Star MVP, putting up a 20-20 line playing in his hometown of Philadelphia.

2. Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers | 1979-80

Stats: 18.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 7.3 apg
Achievements: NBA championship, Finals MVP, All-Star
Impact on winning: +13

Johnson didn’t even win the ROY award — he finished second to rival Larry Bird – but from start to finish, no newbie enjoyed more success. The rookie from Michigan State slapped the paddles on a Laker team relying too much on an aging Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, got them from 47 to 60 victories and them to the Finals. Handling the open tip in Game 6 with an injured Abdul-Jabbar back in L.A., Johnson had 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in the tile clincher over the Sixers to earn Finals MVP. He’s the only rookie to do so.

3. Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati Royals | 1960-61

Stats: 30.5 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 9.7 apg
Achievements: ROY, All-NBA (1), All-Star
Impact on winning: +14

Think 26 triple-doubles, including four in his first five games as a pro. Robertson fell just 20 assists short of averaging a triple-double while scoring more than 30 points nightly. He earned All-NBA first team status, finished fifth in MVP balloting and took home the All-Star MVP trophy from Syracuse by posting 23-9-14.

4. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Milwaukee Bucks | 1969-70

Stats: 28.8 ppg, 14.5 rpg, 4.1 assists
Achievements: ROY, All-NBA (2), All-Defense (2), All-Star
Impact on winning: +29

Arriving as Lew Alcindor (before adopting his Muslim name), the big man joined an expansion team in its second season. He boosted the Bucks from 27 to 56 victories, got them to the East finals and finished third in MVP voting. His “Sky Hook” (terminology courtesy of Bucks broadcaster Eddie Doucette) etched itself, logo worthy, into NBA imagery.

5. David Robinson, San Antonio Spurs | 1989-90

Stats: 24.3 ppg, 12.0 rpg, 2.0 apg
Achievements: ROY, All-NBA (3), All-Defense (2), All-Star
Impact on winning: +35

The Spurs had waited two extra years while Robinson fulfilled his service obligation to the U.S. Navy, but it was worth it. The 24-year-old center finished sixth for MVP, the lowest he would finish in his first seven seasons. San Antonio improved by a heady 35 victories. And he blocked 3.9 shots per game, more than Wembanyama (3.6) this season.

6. Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs | 1997-98

Stats: 21.1 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 2.7 apg
Achievements: ROY, All-NBA (1), All-Defense (2), All-Star
Impact on winning: +36

San Antonio got even better — championship-level better — when Duncan showed up. The lone asterisk on his +36 impact was that he joined a team with a healthy Robinson returning from sore back injury that limited him to six games in 1996-97. Back then, the league awarded only one Rookie of the Month, not one per conference. Duncan went 6-for-6 that season and wound up fifth for MVP and fifth for DPOY.

As the 1998 Rookie of the Year, Tim Duncan was a dominant force for the Spurs.

7. Larry Bird, Boston Celtics | 1979-80

Stats: 21.3 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 4.5 apg
Achievements: ROY, All-NBA (1), All-Star
Impact on winning: +32

Bird famously realized during the preseason that not only could he make a living in the NBA, he could dominate. He sparked Boston to 61 victories, made the All-NBA frontcourt alongside Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving, finished fourth in MVP voting, and in the first year of the NBA’s 3-point shot, Bird hit 40% in limited attempts.

8. Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls | 1984-85

Stats: 28.2 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 5.9 apg
Achievements: ROY, All-NBA (2), All-Star
Impact on winning: +11

Jordan is a great example of appreciating the Hall of Famer but forgetting the rookie version. “His Airness” made the NBA sit bolt upright with the spectacle of his play, his off-court appeal (endorsements), the jealousy of some NBA veterans (the All-Star Game “freeze-out”) and the quick sense that his play at North Carolina only had scratched the surface of Jordan’s potential. He scored 30 points or more in 33 games, and only Jordan and Robertson among rookies ever averaged 25-5-5.

9. Shaquille O’Neal, Orlando Magic | 1992-93

Stats: 23.4 ppg, 13.9 rpg, 1.9 apg
Achievements: ROY, All-Star
Impact on winning: +20

Powerful enough to shatter backboards and swift enough to lead fast breaks, O’Neal was a physical marvel as much as Wembanyama. He averaged 3.5 blocks per game, and 4.2 of his rebounds came on the offensive end. He turned a woeful Magic club into a .500 team, almost doubling their victory total from the season before. He started for the East in the All-Star Game.

10. Victor Wembanyama, San Antonio Spurs | 2023-24

Stats: 21.4 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 3.9 apg
Achievements: ROY
Impact on winning: 0

The Spurs center crafted stat lines that included both familiar big-man categories as well as 3-pointers. He led the league in blocks as a rookie. But what keeps him anchored this low is the Spurs were not even one game better with him than a year ago. Look at the rest of the names on this list — they all elevated their teams immediately, a little or a lot. The excitement over what Wembanyama might do in coming seasons doesn’t erase the failure to launch this season.

11. Walt Bellamy, Chicago Packers | 1961-62

Stats: 31.6 ppg, 19.0 rpg, 2.7 apg
Achievements: ROY, All-Star
Impact on winning:

The Packers were an expansion team, so Bellamy was part of their bumpy 18-62 season. At 6-foot-11, Bellamy led the NBA in shooting percentage (.519) and went for 23 points and 17 boards in the All-Star Game. His rookie point and rebound averages rank second only to Wilt’s but Bellamy never reached those numbers again.

12. Elgin Baylor, Minneapolis Lakers | 1958-59

Stats: 24.9 ppg, 15.0 rpg, 4.1 apg
Achievements: ROY, All-NBA (1), All-Star
Impact on winning: +14

Baylor’s season line put him in the Top 10 in points, rebounds and assists, and he finished third in MVP voting. He shared All-Star MVP honors with HOFer Bob Pettit.

13. Elvin Hayes, San Diego Rockets | 1968-69

Stats: 28.4 ppg, 17.1 rpg, 1.4 apg
Achievements: All-Star
Impact on winning: +22

Hayes arrived as a familiar name after his Houston team upset Alcindor’s UCLA squad in the most famous NCAA basketball game to that point. The “Big E” was five inches shorter than and one college year ahead of the man who became Kareem, but he had an impact. Hayes led the NBA in scoring as a rookie (then led in rebounding in Season No. 2).

14. Wes Unseld, Baltimore Bullets | 1968-69

Stats: 13.8 ppg, 18.2 rpg, 2.6 apg
Achievements: MVP, ROY, All-NBA (1), All-Star
Impact on winning: +21

Unseld, an undersized (6-foot-7) center, joined Chamberlain as the only rookie to be named NBA MVP. He had the lowest scoring average of any MVP winner, before or since, even less than in any of Bill Russell’s five MVP seasons. But his rebounding, screens, outlet passes and ferocity all helped the Bullets go from last place to first.

15. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers | 2003-04

Stats: 20.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.9 apg
Achievements: ROY
Impact on winning: +18

Since we’re ending our list at 15, what separates James’ rookie season from terrific first years by the likes of Rick Barry, Blake Griffin, Hakeem Olajuwon, Maurice Stokes, Walter Davis, Mark Jackson and others? James did his right out of high school, turning 19 along the way. He carried the Cavs, finishing in the Top 10 in minutes, points, shots and turnovers, and landed ninth in MVP balloting.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on X.

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