Top 10 Greatest Rookie Seasons in NBA History
Top 10 Greatest Rookie Seasons in NBA History
So far, the 2021-2022 rookie class is just as advertised through the first week of the season. Players like Chris Duarte, Scottie Barnes, Evan Mobley, and Jalen Green have made significant impacts in this early season. And we haven’t even seen the number one overall pick, Cade Cunningham. In 10 years, we could look back at this class as one of the most impactful to the future of the NBA.
But each of these players has a long, LONG way to go to match the production of the top 10 rookie seasons of all time. So do any of these 2021-2022 guys end up looking like Shaquille O’Neal’s 1993 rookie season? What about Chris Paul?
Just who are the top 10 rookies of all time? Looking at players who suited up at least 50 times in their first NBA season, here are the rookies with the highest Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of all time. There will be a range of reactions in this list from “of course!” to “who’s that?!” I promise you.
Let’s dive in to see how far this year’s class has to go to match the best of all time.
10. Ray Felix (1953-54, 22.9 PER)
Our first “Who’s that?!” comes in right off the bat. Just fractional PER points ahead of Shaq, Felix played for the Baltimore Bullets, who would disband after just 11 games the following season, but they went out with a bang for Felix. He averaged 17.6 points, 13.3 rebounds, and 1.1 assists for a team that went 16-56 under the direction of the infamous Clair Bee. In what is the clearest sign that this was a different age, Felix – a center – shot under 42% from the floor and under 64% from the free-throw line.
9. Elgin Baylor (1958-59, 23.6 PER)
I know you’ve heard of Elgin Baylor, the original Big Hurt. Baylor joined the Lakers two years before they fled Minneapolis for Los Angeles and was an instant star. Baylor’s 24.9 points and 15 rebounds per game both ranked top-four in the NBA that season and he was also third in minutes played as a rookie. Baylor would go on to play 13 more Hall of Fame-caliber seasons, but his rookie PER would wind up being the fifth-highest of his career.
8. Bob Pettit (1954-55, 24.4 PER)
I assure you not all of the players on this list were from a time from before your parents were born. But it’s just that these players came into the league as such dominant forces in an era when the league was new, and they had never seen players with the size and skill of big men like Baylor and Pettis – the original elite power forwards. Similar to Baylor’s path, Pettit joined the Milwaukee Hawks before they flew south to Atlanta. Pettit tuned up the league with 20.4 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game. Similar to Felix, Pettis only shot 40.7% from the floor that season. That would get you a ticket down to the G-League in today’s game, but the league leader this season only shot 48% from the field. Different time, different game.
7. Arvydas Sabonis (1995-96, 24.7 PER)
And here is where we start thinking about if there should be a minutes floor when we measure PER for a season. The lengthy Lithuanian came to the NBA at age 31, already a legend in Europe and the Olympics. Sabonis would play six seasons for Portland, but the rookie year might have been his best. He only played 23.8 minutes per night but still managed to post 14.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 1.1 blocks per game, including some Sportscenter Top 10-level, passes. In what is the quirkiest stat of this whole list, only two players recorded a made three-pointer. Sabonis leads the group with 39 threes, a full 30 more than the next guy on this list.
6. Michael Jordan (1984-85, 25.8 PER)
The GOAT was pretty much the GOAT right from his opening tip, averaging 28.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 2.4 steals per game, playing all 82 games as a rookie. His scoring was third in the league, just a half-point behind Larry Bird, and his 2313 total points led the league. Jordan would later improve to a consistent 30%-35% three-point shooter, but he made only nine threes his first season on 17% shooting from distance.
5. Oscar Robertson (1960-61, 25.9 PER)
Imagine what would happen if a rookie joined the league right now and put up 30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 9.7 assists over 71 games. There would be an immediate coronation on social media, and we would be talking about how soon we can chisel his face onto the NBA Mount Rushmore next to Jordan and Lebron James. Robertson entered the league in 1960 and announced his presence by finishing third in points per game, first in assists per game, and fourth in field goal percentage. Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were still in the midst of their epic battles, but it was Robertson who led the league in offensive win shares with 13.0
4. David Robinson (1989-90, 26.3 PER)
Perhaps Robinson was at an unfair advantage because he served in the Navy for a full two years after he was drafted, and during that time, he turned into a beast of a man. By the time he debuted in the fall of 1989, Robinson was one of the most imposing specimens the NBA had to offer, and he used it to his full advantage. Robinson immediately entered the conversation with Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing as the best centers after averaging 24.3 points, 12.1 rebounds, and 3.9 blocks per game. By the following season, he led the NBA in rebounding. He led in blocks the year after that and scoring in 1994.
3. Walt Bellamy (1961-62, 26.3 PER)
If it sounds weird as a sports fan to see that there was once a Chicago Packers franchise, just know that you’re not alone. It would eventually become the Chicago Zephyrs for one year and then evolve into the Baltimore Bullets and eventually the Washington Bullets. The Packers drafted Bellamy, and, statistically speaking, there is probably only one player who can rival Bellamy’s rookie year. Bellamy was otherworldly, with 31.6 points per game and 19.0 rebounds per contest. He led the whole league in field goal percentage as a rookie (51.9%) but would unfortunately never be able to repeat that level of production. He finished his career with a still strong 20.1 points and 13.7 rebounds per game, but his rookie season was his statistical peak.
2. Boban Marjanovic (2015-16, 27.7 PER)
OK. Here is where we talk about what PER is. Player Efficiency Rating measures how effective a player is per minute in his time on the court. It was created by John Hollinger as a way to combine all positive and negative aspects of a player’s performance into one statistic. When we see PER leaderboards, they are often filtered to show only qualified players or players who played at least X amount of minutes per game. We should do that with Boban, considering he played just 9.4 minutes per game for the Spurs in his rookie season. But I leave him here to show just how dominant Boban is per minute when paired up against all of these upper-tier Hall of Fame players. Now in his age 33 season, Boban will never get the opportunity to play big minutes, but he actually had two seasons with a higher PER than in his rookie year. In his nine minutes of court time, he averaged 5.5 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 0.4 blocks. If you want to leave Boban off the list, I understand. However, when you do, Shaq files in just behind Ray Felix.
1. Wilt Chamberlain (1959-60, 28.0 PER)
That’s right. Wilt and Boban neck and neck, just like we always thought it would be. At the end of 1959, you had Russell, Pettit, and Baylor all as elite big men, the best in the game. They are all battling with each other and trading places in leading the league in specific categories like points per game (Pettit with 29.2) and rebounds per game (Russell with 23.0). Then the following year, this huge athletic freak out of Kansas jumps right into the NBA and starts averaging 37.6 points and 27.0 rebounds, both best in the league. Wilt the Stilt was so dominant that first year, he was 1941 total rebounds were just slightly lower than the combined total of the fourth and fifth-best rebounders. His total points (2707) were just slightly less than Bob Cousy and Bill Russell had combined (2805). There will likely never be a player to dominate his era as incomparably as Chamberlain did in 1960.
Proudest husband and dad you will ever find. When I'm not with my wife and two kids I split my time working in higher ed, grinding DFS and season-long, collecting silver age comics, studying behavioral economics, and drinking coffee. I once played Pat Connaughton in an actual NBA DFS lineup for money. Astros, Rockets, and Texans for life.