Seeing this is March 2, a pretty big anniversary in NBA circles of the great Wilt Chamberlain’s iconic 100-point performance in 1962, it seems worthwhile to remind readers of the Kia Rookie Ladder that Chamberlain at one point was a newcomer himself.
Pretty clearly the NBA’s most impactful rookie ever.
In fact, if an all-time edition of the Ladder existed – maybe this will scratch that itch – there is zero doubt that the man nicknamed “The Dipper” would own the top rung. Probably building a palatial estate on it with a retractable roof over his bedroom, the way he lived in Bel Air, Calif., prior to his passing at age 63 in 1999.
There have been some remarkable rookie seasons in the NBA’s first 75 years. Some have been the early work of eventual legends, such as Elgin Baylor, David Robinson, Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan and LeBron James. Others have come from players whose careers didn’t quite reach those heights but burst brightly on the scene nonetheless, from Terry Dischinger and Sidney Wicks to Walt Bellamy and Blake Griffin.
Here’s a quick countdown of a very arguable Top 5 on an all-time Ladder:
5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1969-70: Delivered to Milwaukee by a coin flip, the young giant averaged 28.8 points and 14.5 rebounds, boosted the Bucks from 27 to 56 victories and, one year later, helped deliver a championship.
4. Magic Johnson, 1979-80: Another product of a famous coin flip (the Bulls settled for David Greenwood), Johnson’s effervescent game invigorated the Lakers and an aging Abdul-Jabbar. More than his numbers – 18.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 7.3 apg – it was his style, leading what would become known as “Showtime” all the way to the 1980 title by filling in for an injured Kareem in the clinching Game 6 in Philadelphia. Didn’t matter one bit that Boston’s Larry Bird was named ROY.
3. Michael Jordan, 1984-85: Jordan averaged 28.2 points as a rookie, grabbing hold of the Bulls and soon enough the entire league. He wound up with a pretty decisive victory for the rookie trophy, too, getting 57.5 votes to Hakeem Olajuwon’s 20.5 in what was a loaded Class of 1984.
2. Oscar Robertson, 1960-61: The man who made triple-doubles a thing in the league nearly averaged one from the very start: 30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and a league high 9.7 assists, all from his backcourt spot for Cincinnati. The Royals nearly doubled their victory total from the previous season, while the Big O edged out a pretty fair rival for the ROY, Lakers guard Jerry West.
1. Wilt Chamberlain, 1959-60: How do you wind up being named both the league’s No. 1 rookie and its Most Valuable Player? Put up stats – 37.6 ppg, 27.0 rpg – in your debut season that nobody else has matched across all the players in all the years. In 1969, Baltimore’s Wes Unseld won both awards but with far more modest numbers (13.8 ppg, 18.2 rpg).
The NBA never had seen a force like Chamberlain and perhaps hasn’t since. A couple of years later, he would average 50.4 points while playing 48.5 minutes (thanks to overtimes), become the only player to score 4,000 points in a season (only Jordan after him ever reached 3,000) and post those 100 points in Hershey, Pa., 60 years ago.
So not to take anything away from the 2021-22 rookies populating this week’s Ladder, but there’s no sense comparing Evan Mobley’s, Scottie Barnes’, Cade Cunningham’s or the others’ work to Chamberlain’s, not with scoring averages about half of his or rebounding averages at one third.
Different guys, different times. Decidedly different rookie.
The Top 5 this week on the 2021-22 Kia Rookie Ladder:
(All stats through Monday, Feb. 28)
1. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers
Whatever expectations the Cavaliers might have had for Mobley when the season began, he quickly met and exceeded. Same was true for the Ladder, where the lanky USC product has held the top spot for much of the season. But with injuries ripping through teammates such as Darius Garland, Caris LeVert and Collin Sexton, there is a new expectation for Mobley to meet: Get more aggressive offensively. In three post-All Star performances, his scoring (13.7 points on 11.3 shots) and shooting have drooped (44.1%) below his pre-AS numbers. His rookie-best plus/minus has taken a hit too. The Cavs need Mobley to take another step for the home stretch.
— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) March 1, 2022
2. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors
Barnes has a message for all those folks in Cleveland and elsewhere who think the ROY race is over: Bwahahahaha! The way the Toronto point forward has played recently, he seems intent on having the last laugh. The rookie bookended a six-point performance in Atlanta Saturday with 28-point outbursts at Charlotte and at Brooklyn. In the latter on Monday, he made his first 11 shots and grabbed a season-best 16 rebounds. With just two games separating the Raptors from the Cavs in the Eastern Conference standings as of March 2, the ROY might swing on how much Mobley and Barnes help their teams win from here out.
Scottie Barnes is the first rookie since Shaq to have at least 25 points, 15 rebounds, and 5 steals in a game
He only missed 2 shots all game pic.twitter.com/k7jCXLY7uC
— SB Nation (@SBNation) March 1, 2022
3. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons
Last season, the ROY competition down the stretch was heated but only between Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball and Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards. Cunningham might turn it this year into a three-man pursuit. His passing, court awareness and knack for finding teammates are in full bloom, and the Rising Stars MVP’s scoring and shooting are up. His speed bumps lately have come from the arc, making only two of his most recent 16 3-point attempts, and from the refs. Cunningham has averaged 4.2 fouls per game over his past six outings heading into Thursday’s clash with Barnes’ Raptors.
4. Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic
If showing up really is 90% of success in life, as the old saying goes, Wagner’s formula for this rookie season is simple. He has played in all 62 games for Orlando – one of only five players in the league to start each of his team’s games – and leads the Class of 2021 in total minutes and total points (963 to Barnes’ 786). He has scored 20 points or more 14 times. And his play has been as consistent as punching that time clock, reaching double figures 52 times without needing to dominate the ball.
5. Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder
A sore hip sidelined Giddey, limiting him to just one game since the All-Star break. And coach Mark Daigneault has indicated the Australian first-year whiz could be out for a while. Fortunately for the Thunder, teammate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was back after a 10-game absence to take command of the ball. But it’s likely there will be yet another transition for the two backcourt players and their teammates when both are fully functioning again.
The Next 7:
6. Ayo Dosunmu, Chicago Bulls
Has shot both 50% overall and 40% on 3s in 20 games.
7. Herbert Jones, New Orleans Pelicans
No. 35 pick tops class in steals (87), T-2nd in blocks (49).
8. Jalen Green, Houston Rockets
He’s been at his best against Ladder’s top rung-holders.
9. Chris Duarte, Indiana Pacers
Toe injury goes from lingering to nagging, stalls progress.
10. Jalen Suggs, Orlando Magic
Lost battle of rookie Jalens: Suggs (3 points, 1-of-5) vs. Green (23, 9-16).
11. Jonathan Kuminga, Golden State Warriors
When he plays 20+ minutes he averages 16.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg.
12. Cam Thomas, Brooklyn Nets
Since Feb. 4, 18.5 ppg, 28.6 mpg and picking up Nets’ slack.
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