Kia Rookie Ladder

Kia Rookie Ladder: Why Wilt Chamberlain is the greatest rookie ever

Breaking down the latest Top 10 ranking of first-year players, plus a look back at Wilt Chamberlain's debut season.

NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain was nearly unstoppable during his rookie season.

The prize at the end of the season for the best first-year player has a name now: the Wilt Chamberlain Rookie of the Year Award, one of several annual awards newly dubbed.

At first blush, relegating a legendary Hall of Famer and arguably the greatest player in league history to an honor focused only on first-year guys might have seemed a slight. Chamberlain led the NBA in scoring seven times in his 13 seasons, in rebounds eight times and topped everybody in shooting accuracy nine times. So what, his final 12 seasons of his career were chopped liver or something?

Look back at Wilt Chamberlain's legendary career.

But you don’t have to drill down very far here at the Kia Rookie Ladder HQ to realize that there’s another way to look at Chamberlain’s name on the ROY trophy: He ranks as the NBA’s greatest rookie ever, 63 years after he became the award’s 14th winner overall.

Here are some things to know about Chamberlain’s initial season with the Philadelphia Warriors in 1959-60, when he arrived as possibly the most hotly anticipated newcomer ever:

• As a rookie, Chamberlain averaged 37.6 points and 27.0 rebounds, which are of course way beyond the averages put up by any other ROY. In fact, they’re way beyond most players, period. His scoring average ranks as the fourth highest in NBA history – with the first three also held by Wilt. Likewise his rebounding: It trails only the 27.2 rpg Chamberlain posted in his second season, just ahead of his 25.7 in Year 3. Only Bill Russell at 24.7 in 1963-64 ranks among the top seven, with the other six belonging to The Dipper.

• Chamberlain grew up in Philadelphia, was recruited like few before or since out of Overbrook High there and landed at Kansas for two seasons. He left after the 1957-58 school year but NBA rules at the time allowed a player entry only after his college class had graduated. So Chamberlain traveled with the world with the Harlem Globetrotters for a year before reaching the NBA at age 23.

Prior to his rookie season in 1959, Wilt Chamberlain sat down to discuss his expectations for his NBA career.

• His first contract (with incentives) reportedly approached a league-high $50,000. Seven years earlier, Warriors owner Eddie Gottlieb had paid $25,000 for the franchise.

• In his first NBA game, a 118-109 victory at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 24, 1959, Chamberlain had 43 points and 28 rebounds. He allegedly blocked a dozen or so shots, though those weren’t tracked as an official category until the season after Wilt retired.

• In Philadelphia’s next game and home opener, the big man had 36 points, 34 boards and a claimed nine blocks against Detroit. In his third, it was 41 points and 40 rebounds against Syracuse.

• Chamberlain’s fourth game was against Boston, the first meeting in one of sports’ greatest rivalries with Wilt going against Bill Russell. In that one, Chamberlain had 30 points and 28 rebounds to Russell’s 22 points and 36 board, with the Celtics winning. “He’s amazing,” the Boston center said.

• The next time they played, Chamberlain outscored Russell 45-15 and outrebounded him 35-13. In their dozen regular-season meetings, Wilt bested his bearded foe 440 points to 212 and 333 rebounds to 161.

• Chamberlain’s arrival boosted Philadelphia from last in the Eastern Division the year before all the way to the postseason semifinals in the eight-team league, a six-game loss to the Celtics.

• Chamberlain broke eight NBA records in his first season. He was the first guy to average more than 30 points per game and his 2,707 points in a season shattered Bob Pettit’s mark of 2,105. And Wilt needed only 56 games to do it.

• League attendance shot up by 500,000, about a quarter of the previous year’s gates overall. The Warriors’ home crowd soared by 37%.

• The Greatest Rookie Ever scored 30.4% of his team’s points in 1959-60 and grabbed 32.8% of their rebounds. For comparison of dominating big men, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s respective percentages were 24.2% and 26.9% in 1969-70, while Shaquille O’Neal notched 21.9% and 31.1% for Orlando in 1992-93. Russell? He accounted for 9.3% of Boston’s scoring and 19% of its rebounds.

• Winning Rookie of the Year was nice, but Chamberlain also was named NBA Most Valuable Player that season, the first and only man to claim both until Baltimore’s Wes Unseld matched it in 1968.

Wilt Chamberlain was the first player in NBA history to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season.

• Chamberlain bought a harness racing horse before his rookie season because Gottlieb told him he needed a hobby. He cut a record (“By the River”) in January of that season and appeared on “American Bandstand.”

• At the end of Wilt’s rookie season, he announced his retirement. He felt the Warriors’ coach, Neil Johnston, was overmatched. He was sick of getting physically hammered game after game, including a cheap-shot elbow by hulking Hawks big man Clyde Lovellette that cost Chamberlain his two front teeth. And while the NBA was changing rules to contain him – instituting offensive goaltending and widening the foul lane – he wondered how great he might have become as an overall athlete.

“I’m grateful for what basketball has done for me, but track is my first love,” he said. “I’m convinced I can break the world decathlon record and I want to give it a try.”

Chamberlain even detached himself enough to tour Russia with the Globetrotters. But before the 1960-61 season, Johnston had been fired and Wilt realized he couldn’t make money from his envisioned decathlete league. He re-upped with the Warriors on a deal for three years, making upwards of $65,000 per.

Over time, he played for eight coaches and three franchises, won two championships, four MVP awards and 13 All-Star invitations, led the league in points seven times, rebounds 11 times and assists in 1967-68 just to prove some critics wrong.

But in less than his first six months in the NBA, Chamberlain had done enough to have his name forever emblazoned on the ROY award.

The Top 5 this week on the 2022-23 Kia Rookie Ladder:

(All stats through Tuesday, Dec. 27)

1. Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic

Season stats: 21.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 3.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 15.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 3.3 apg
Last Ladder: 1
Draft pick: No. 1 overall

Foul trouble limited the Ladder’s top rung-holder to barely 22 minutes Tuesday against the Lakers, with his four-point performance (1-for-6 shooting) ranking as his season low and only his second all season in single digits. But both LeBron James and Russell Westbrook lauded the Orlando rookie, and since their teams don’t meet again till March, it wasn’t gamesmanship for a quick rematch. “A three-level scorer,” James called Banchero. “Every game he’ll get better and better, every film session he’ll get better and better.”

2. Bennedict Mathurin, Indiana Pacers

Season stats: 17.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.5 apg
Since last Ladder: 11.5 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 1.3 apg
Last Ladder: 2
Draft pick: No. 6 overall

The native of Montreal continues as a viable Sixth Man candidate even as he ranks No. 2 on the Ladder. Mathurin led Indiana’s reserves with 18 points for a 49-28 bench-scoring advantage in Tuesday’s 15-point victory over Atlanta. His team is 10-6 when he scores 18 or more, 8-11 otherwise. Overall, he ranks No. 1 among reserves with 580 points – 130 more than Sacramento’s Malik Monk – and leads all bench players with 5.6 free throw attempts per game.

3. Jaden Ivey, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 15.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 4.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 16.0 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 4.3 apg
Last Ladder: 3
Draft pick: No. 5 overall

Tops the Class of 2022 in assists (128), is second with 34 steals and ranks third with 497 points. Ivey has scored 10-plus points in 13 of his past 14 appearances and 29 of 32 overall. Only Kelly Tripucka (1981-82) had more (30) as a Pistons rookie through his first 32 games. He had eight of Detroit’s season-best 32 assists against the Clippers Monday, his 14th game with five or more.

4. Keegan Murray, Sacramento Kings

Season stats: 11.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 0.8 apg
Since last Ladder: 12.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 1.0 apg
Last Ladder: 4
Draft pick: No. 4 overall

Murray’s overall accuracy this past week was off (38.7%) but his shots from deep were on (45%). In fact, he’s hitting 47.4% of his 3-pointers this month. Good thing he’s right-handed – he’s been wearing a wrap on his left hand since hurting it against Cleveland Dec. 9. His 23 points (6-for-12 3FG) vs. the Lakers Wednesday matched his season high.

5. Jabari Smith, Jr., Houston Rockets

Season stats: 12.1 ppg, 7.2. rpg, 0.8 apg
Since last Ladder: 13.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 1.8 apg
Last Ladder: 5
Draft pick: No. 3 overall

Here’s the advice: “You’re not the first 19-year-old kid that has come into the NBA, has struggled, and you won’t be the last. There’s a reason why they wanted you guys to go play a couple years of college.” Here’s the source: Jabari Smith Sr., talking to the Houston Chronicle about his namesake. Dad played four seasons and 108 games, benefitting from veteran teammates after being picked by Sacramento at No. 45 overall. “I came in with guys who could teach me something off the court that would transition on the court.” The young 10-24 Rockets are learning together.

The Next 5:

6. Jalen Duren, Detroit Pistons

Season stats: 7.6 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 0.8 apg
Since last Ladder: 11.7 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 2.0 apg
Last Ladder: 6
Draft pick: No. 13 overall

Progress is 9.2 points, 10.2 boards, 68.9% in Dec. vs. 7.4, 6.7, 56.1% in Oct.

7. Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder

Season stats: 11.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.7 apg
Since last Ladder: 13.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 2.3 apg
Last Ladder: 8
Draft pick: No. 12 overall

Had 15-9-3 Tuesday in W vs. Spurs, shooting 52% past 13 games.

8. AJ Griffin, Atlanta Hawks

Season stats: 10.7 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 1.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 10.3 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 1.0 apg
Last Ladder: 7
Draft pick: No. 16 overall

Seven buckets, four threes and one FT shy of 50/40/90 shooting.

9. Walker Kessler, Utah Jazz

Season stats: 6.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 0.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 9.5 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 0.5 apg
Last Ladder: 9
Draft pick: No. 22 overall

Making 76.3% of his field goal attempts (and 56.8% of his foul shots).

T10. Jeremy Sochan, San Antonio Spurs

Season stats: 8.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.5 apg
Since last Ladder: 14.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 4.3 apg
Last Ladder: N/A
Draft pick: No. 9 pick overall

Home: 10.4 ppg, 51.6% true shooting. Road: 6.7, 45.8%.

T10. Andrew Nembhard

Season stats: 8.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.8 apg
Since last Ladder: 7.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.8 apg
Last Ladder: N/A
Draft pick: No. 31 pick overall

Indiana is 6-3 when he has 5+ assists.

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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 Twitter.

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