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10 best rookie seasons in NBA history, ranked

We’ve all heard and seen some of the most highly-touted NBA rookies completely failing to live up to the high expectations everyone had on them. These are usually some of the most disheartening narratives not only for the players themselves but for the franchises as well.

That’s certainly not what we have for you today. Below we take a look at the opposite side of the spectrum in our Top 10 greatest NBA rookie seasons of all time.

10. Magic Johnson

Rookie year stats: 18.0 points (on 53.0 percent shooting), 7.7 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 2.4 steals

There’s a famous story of how Magic Johnson actually never wanted to play for the Los Angeles Lakers, despite the team drafting him first overall in the 1979 draft. He reportedly intended to just play out his rookie contract with LA, and eventually sign with his home town team, the Detroit Pistons.

You couldn’t have told from his rookie-year performance that Johnson had his heart elsewhere. Obviously, he eventually had a change of heart and played out his career with LA, establishing himself as one of the greatest Lakers of all time.

9. Elvin Hayes

Rookie year stats: 28.4 points 17.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists

Hall of Famer Elvin Hayes was selected first overall by the San Diego Rockets in the 1968 draft. It did not take long before the 6-foot-9 big man began paying dividends for the team that risked it all for him. Hayes was subbed an All-Star in his first season in the league, which was succeeded by 11 more consecutive appearances on the All-Star squad.

8. David Robinson

Rookie year stats: 24.3 points (on 53.1 percent shooting), 12.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.7 steals, 3.9 blocks

After drafting him as the first overall pick in the 1987 NBA draft, the San Antonio Spurs had to wait two full years for David Robinson to complete his service with the US Navy before he was able to make his debut for the team.

The dominant 7-foot-1 center proved to be truly worth the wait, as Robinson took the league by storm in his rookie year. Even as a 24-year-old playing in his first season in the NBA, it was already clear that Robinson was bound to be one of the greatest big men in NBA history.

7. Elgin Baylor

Rookie year stats: 24.9 points, 15.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists

As soon as Elgin Baylor entered the NBA, he was already a star. Having been selected first overall by the Lakers, it was clear early on that LA had made the right decision. The 6-foot-5 swingman made 11 appearances in the All-Star team throughout his decorated career, with his first one coming in his rookie year.

6. Michael Jordan

Rookie year stats: 28.2 points (on 51.5 percent shooting), 6.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 2.4 steals

Michael Jordan is the GOAT, but he did not exactly have a GOAT-caliber NBA rookie season. He was still pretty good, though, showing early on that he was bound for greatness. Nevertheless, probably also because of how he evolved to be the greatest player of all time, his rookie-year performance doesn’t crack our Top 5.

5. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Rookie year stats: 28.8 points, 14.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is considered by many as one of the greatest players who ever donned the Lakers jersey. However, the 7-foot-2 big man actually started his career with the Milwaukee Bucks, and it was actually one of the greatest NBA debuts of all time. To say that Abdul-Jabbar made an instant impact upon his arrival in the league would be an understatement.

4. Walt Bellamy

Rookie year stats: 31.6 points (on 51.9 percent shooting), 19.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists

Much was expected from Indiana junior Walt Bellamy when the Chicago Packers used their first overall pick on him in the 1961 NBA draft. The 6-foot-11 big man did not disappoint. He was an absolute force in his first season in the league. To some extent, he even exceeded the lofty expectations many had on him.

3. Wes Unseld

Rookie year stats: 13.8 points, 18.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists

Selected second overall by the Baltimore Bullets during the 1968 draft, Wes Unseld is one out of only two players in league history that has won the Rookie of the Year award and the Most Valuable Player trophy in the same season. That in itself is testament to how tremendous Unseld’s debut campaign was.

2. Oscar Robertson

Rookie year stats: 30.5 points (on 47.3 percent shooting), 10.1 rebounds, 9.7 assists

Oscar Robertson is the original “Mr. Triple Double,” and he was wowing the basketball world way before Russell Westbrook was even born. The 6-foot-5 point guard nearly averaged a triple-double that in his first year in the league with the Cincinnati Royals, a feat that he eventually accomplished in his sophomore campaign.

1. Wilt Chamberlain

Rookie year stats: 37.6 points (on 46.1 percent shooting), 27.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists

The only other guy to have won the NBA MVP award in his debut season is none other than the great Wilt Chamberlain. Joining the Philadelphia Warriors as part of a territorial selection draft format in 1959, the 7-foot-1 big man dominated the league as soon as he arrived.

It wasn’t until 1962 that Chamberlain historically logged 100 points in a single game — a record that is not likely to be broken ever — but he had already made his mark as early as his debut campaign.