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Who Were the Five Best Rookies in NBA History?

As the 2022-23 season has gotten into full swing with teams having completed around half of their regular season play, we as NBA fans have the special opportunity to see so many first-year players’ dreams come true and be displayed on a night-in and night-out basis. With this consideration, it is further worth taking a trip down memory lane with now over 75 years of completed NBA History – to look back and see which highly touted prospects came in and made their mark on the league in their first seasons itself. While doing so, it is worth noting lists and questions such as these serve as a fun, subjective exercise where there is no right answer other than appreciating the shared-but-different greatness of many NBA legends.

Without further ado, I plan to walk chronologically through over 60 years of NBA History In this article to look at five players in particular whom I really feel distinguished themselves from the get-go. My criteria for assessing the individual quality and “goodness” of any season – regardless of experience/age – is a players’ situational value, production, skillset, and how all three of these impact winning across various situations in theory (championship equity in more concise terms).

1959-60 Wilt Chamberlain (Selected “territorial & 3rd overall” – Philadelphia Warriors , University of Kansas):

Regular Season & Playoffs Stats (per 36 minutes):

  • 29.2 Points/21 Rebounds/1.8 Assists – 3% relative true shooting to league average
  • 25.9 Points/20 Rebounds/1.6 Assists – 4.4% relative true shooting adjusted for opponents

Coming into the NBA as an outlier athlete amongst outlier athletes (who specialized not only in basketball but also in track & field at the University of Kansas), Wilt Chamberlain consistently put up scoring numbers that seem directly out of a video game. Capable of playing full games without a rest, Wilt averaged around 46 minutes of action per game in this season – where his scoring kept a subpar Philadelphia Warriors offensive cast afloat. Wilt made his presence felt on the defensive end, using his 7’8 wing-span and superhuman athleticism to block shots and rim protect at rates matched by only Bill Russell across all of league history (block per game data unavailable officially, with all data coming from manual tracking & testimonials). His efforts on this end led the Warriors to the second best defense in the NBA and a 2.5 point increase in defensive efficiency relative to their team performance the year prior.

In the playoffs, Wilt and the Warriors cast were able to beat the Syracuse Nationals in the 1st round but ultimately fell short to the dynasty Celtics. In spite of this, Wilt fared well and showcased his volume scoring against one of the greatest team defenses of all time.

1960-61 Oscar Robertson (Selected “territorial & 1st overall” – Cincinnati Royals , University of Cincinnati):

Regular Season Stats (per 36 minutes):

  • 25.7 Points/8.5 Rebounds/8.2 Assists – 8.6% relative true shooting to league average

As mentioned in my first article, Oscar came in to the NBA extremely poised and ahead of the curve. A big part of this was his combination of scoring volume and efficiency (bolstered by stellar finishing & a mid-range came to counter the packed paint(s) of 1960s basketball) – as well as volume passing creation for teammates in transition and the half-court set.

Considering the Royals improved by over 4 team efficiency points on offense (posting the best mark in the NBA and one 3.5 points over league average) and his aforementioned stat line, there is a strong argument Oscar established himself as the best offensive rookie in history by a decent margin. The Royals still had work to do regarding roster construction (along with a less than stellar team defense) and failed to make the playoffs for this reason. With better supporting casts however, Oscar soon showed he could maintain his offensive value and engine great offenses into the playoffs in the years to come.

1969-70 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Selected 1st overall – Milwaukee Bucks , University of California – Los Angeles):

Regular Season & Playoffs Stats (per 36 minutes):

  • 24.1 Points/12.1 Rebounds/3.4 Assists – 4.1% relative true shooting to league average
  • 29.1 Points/13.9 Rebounds/3.4 Assists – 10.1% relative true shooting adjusted for opponents

Most likely the greatest college and greatest high school basketball player in the game’s history, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (formerly known as Lew Alcindor) came in as a dominant, ahead-of-his-time scoring dynamo known for his illustrious “skyhook” move – with solid paint defense and the ability to use his scoring attention to find cutters. This trait gave Kareem the ability and impact of an offensive centerpiece from the very beginning itself.

Being drafted by the recent expansion franchise Milwaukee Bucks, the addition of Kareem took the organization from worst to near-first: improving from 27 to 56 wins and improving their team’s offensive efficiency by 8.2 points. Although the Bucks found themselves overmatched in their second playoff series against a champion New York Knicks team with an all-time great defense, Kareem proved to be phenomenal. He would lead the Bucks to a title the following season however – leading one of the most efficiently performing teams in NBA history.

1979-80 Larry Bird (Selected 6th overall – Boston Celtics , Indiana State University):

Regular Season | Playoffs Stats (per 75 possessions & adjusted):

  • 21.7 Points/10.6 Rebounds/4.5 Assists/1.7 Steals – 0.7% relative true shooting to league average
  • 20.1 Points/10.6 Rebounds/4.2 Assists/1.4 Steals – (-1.2%) relative true shooting adjusted for opponents

Drafted by the Celtics in 1978, Larry Bird played his final year at Indiana State University with his rights fully intact rather than re-entering the 1979 draft pool. Upon his NBA debut, Bird came into an organizational overhaul and made his impact felt right away as the centerpiece of a 32 win improvement for Boston – helping specifically lead the Celtics to a 61 win season with a top 2 offense and top 4 defense.

Stylistically, Larry Bird came in extremely ahead of the curve and served as a Swiss army knife capable of adding value through many ways. Whether it was spacing the floor and providing a source of jump shooting/off-ball movement/hyper quick passes & decisions/offensive rebounding, Bird brought a lot to the table and put up a well-rounded stat line in spite of being a low touch/on-ball player. On the defensive end, Bird came in no slouch either – using his frame and anticipation to play stellar off-the-ball and near the basket (immensely impressive for a forward).

This years’ iteration of the Boston Celtics made quick work of the Houston Rockets in the first round, but ultimately came short at the hands of a Philadelphia 76ers team that went on to win the East. Nonetheless, Bird maintained his excellence as a jack-of-all-trades along with improving his offensive production each passing season while being the cornerstone of three championship winning Celtics teams. At his very best, Bird also won three consecutive league MVP awards – a feat matched by only Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain to this day.

1989-90 David Robinson (Selected 1st overall (1987) – San Antonio Spurs , U.S. Naval Academy):

Regular Season | Playoffs Stats (per 75 possessions & adjusted):

  • 24.8 Points/12.0 Rebounds/1.7 Steals/3.9 Blocks – 6.0% relative true shooting to league average
  • 23.9 Points/11.8 Rebounds/1.0 Steals/3.8 Blocks – 4.4% relative true shooting adjusted for opponents

After his two years of Naval service , David Robinson resumed his basketball legacy joining the Spurs. Coming into the league as a 24 year old and very polished as a result, Robinson dominated for rookie standards – en route to turning the Spurs success around by 35 wins (going from 22 to 57). By far one of the two best rookie defenders of all time alongside the late great Chamberlain, Robinson’s elite help-defense and court rotations, rim protection & shot blocking overall, and paint denial turned the Spurs into a top three unit right from Robinson’s rookie season. On the offensive end, Robinson came in with solid fundamentals and the ability to score in many ways right off of a pass (including rim running, scoring off of lobs, and on face-up jumpers).

In the playoffs, Robinson’s Spurs made quick work of the Nuggets in round one before ultimately falling short at the hands of a superior Portland Trail Blazers team. As Robinson aged into his prime, the Spurs were able to pair him with another all-time great rookie and player in Tim Duncan – thus creating a front-court which combined for two championships and some of the best defense in league history.

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