Each season, approximately 80 fresh faces get the chance to step out on the sacred floor and witness their lifelong dream come true. While the rookies themselves are more than eager to showcase their talent on the big stage, there is a platoon of fans, analysts and journalists just waiting to prematurely smack on a label of a bust or a draft steal to these inexperienced players.
That definitely puts a decent amount of pressure on both the player and the coach who needs to carefully ease his new piece in. At the same time, it allows us to see whether the rookie is equipped with sufficient mental strength to handle the high expectations. After all, the rookie debut has actually proven to be a solid indicator of what a player’s career might shape up to be in the future.
It was obvious from the get-go that Allen Iverson, the shortest ever first overall pick from the historic ’96 draft, will have absolutely no issues with imposing his unique playstyle against seasoned veterans. As he set foot on the NBA court, he immediately dropped the first of the 381 career 30-point games, dished out six assists, and left all 76ers drooling about their future after a disheartening 18-64 season. The manner in which he got his first basket, despite being ruined by a goaltend, was a thing of beauty and a sign of many memorable crossovers to come.
We would have to wait precisely three more years and one day to witness another rookie dropping 30 points in his debut. The Clippers decided to turn their fourth pick in 1999 into Lamar Odom, who was still a teenager at the time, and were instantly overjoyed with the potential their new rookie put on display. He finished his NBA christening against the Supersonics as the leading team scorer despite shooting just 8-15 from the charity stripe, while also throwing in 12 rebounds, three assists and a couple of steals and blocks for good measure.
Although the off-court issues that stuck with him throughout his career prevented him from reaching his full potential and becoming an All-Star, there is a lingering impression that a fully fit and focused Odom would be an invaluable asset in today’s NBA.
Four years after Odom put on an impressive all-around display in his career debut, another teenager was ready to start his quest of reaching the NBA pantheon. No introduction was really necessary for LeBron James; the level of hype surrounding him was unprecedented, and even went as far as his high school game being nationally televised.
On October 29th 2003, the entirety of the public attention shifted towards ARCO Arena, the home of the Kings who were still feeling the bad taste in their mouths after a controversial WCF exit against the Lakers. Lebron promptly responded with a jaw-dropping performance, showcasing his versatile playstyle with 25 points, 6 rebounds, 9 assists and 4 steals on 60% shooting.
James, Iverson and Odom definitely set the bar high for all the rookies who were just about to start filling in the pages of their first NBA chapter. However, going by pure stats, their amazing career debuts seem almost laughable when compared to two historic juggernauts. In his typical fashion, Wilt Chamberlain announced the birth of his era of dominance with a ridiculous 43 point, 28 rebound performance, a statline would be tough to achieve even in an NBA 2K debut.
Just a year later, another incredibly skilled player would enter the league. Despite not sporting a freakish physique like his aforementioned counterpart, Oscar Robertson immediately started proving that he’ll consistently be making his presence felt in all aspects of the game. The 21/12/10 triple-double he recorded in his first game remains the sole debut triple-double in the history of the NBA, and it’s tough to imagine someone repeating the feat in the modern NBA era.
Of course, the correlation between memorable debuts and amazing careers isn’t set in stone; having a noteworthy inaugural game doesn’t necessarily mean that a player is destined for a historical career. A prime example of that is Gordan Giricek, a lanky Euro-stash player from Croatia that the Grizzlies decided to call up for the start of the 2002-03 season.
He wasn’t even a starter that night, but once he entered the game off the bench, he exploded for 29 points and 5 rebounds on 71% shooting. Although Giricek was already 25 at the time, it’s easy to imagine what went through Grizz’ fans’ heads that night. Did we just get a new Toni Kukoc? Drazen Petrovic perhaps? Sadly, that wasn’t the case. This game remained the best individual performance of his career, and although he was sixth among rookies in scoring that season and made the All-Rookie Second team, he was out of the league in just seven seasons.
Fast forward to the start of the 2013-14 season, and the performance that topped even James’ and Iverson’s debuts. It was the King himself that was about to face Michael Carter-Williams, the 11th pick, in the opening night following the first championship title won by the Big Three.
The odds were in favor of the Heat running the Sixers to the ground, but MCW wasn’t even slightly impressed with the reputation of the reigning NBA champs. He completely went off and flirted with a quadruple-double, finishing the game with a spectacular statline of 22 points, 7 rebounds, 12 assists and 9 steals. The fantastic display left the nation speechless, and Carter-Williams was seen as the second coming of the Answer, the franchise point guard that will carry the Sixers back into relevance.
Much to the dismay of Sixers fans, that timeline never came to be, and MCW simply wasn’t able to replicate what he did on that magical night of October 30, 2013. His status gradually devolved to that of an NBA journeyman, mostly thanks to the shooting woes that constantly haunted him. At least he’ll always be able to take pride in what will be written down as arguably the best NBA debut of the modern era.
Last season, we’ve witnessed a fresh batch of rookies that started mesmerizing the NBA audience with their insane potential right off the bat. In fact, the 2017-18 season had the highest number of rookies (11) starting off their careers scoring in double-digits since 1999. Some of the most highly coveted prospects unlocked rather interesting statistical achievements as soon as they were introduced to the NBA.
For example, Ben Simmons, who eventually won the ROTY award, became the first rookie since Grant Hill to post at least 15 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists in his career debut. That same night Dennis Smith Jr. showed Mark Cuban and Rick Carlisle that he just might become the next cornerstone of the Mavs franchise after Dirk’s inevitable retirement – he became the youngest player ever to record a points/assist double-double in his career debut.
The most anticipated introduction however, that of Lonzo Ball, turned out to be a huge disappointment. The hype that was generated around Ball almost reached 2003 Lebron levels, but his father’s shenanigans evidently painted a huge target on his son’s back.
In an unfortunate turn of events for the entire Ball family, a merciless executor was more than ready to welcome Lonzo to the league. In the 29 plays Patrick Beverley guarded, or rather straight up bullied Ball, he was allowed just two shots at the basket, both of which he missed. Many found Ball’s final statline with single digits in each category anticlimactic, immediately jumping the gun with surefire bust labels and complementary told you so‘s.
Long-tenured NBA fans might remember that back in 1989, there was another riveting prospect that started his career on a seriously bad note. Tim Hardaway made his debut on an even more atrocious 0-7 shooting, while committing five personal fouls in 23 minutes of action. Despite the drab performance at the dawn of his career, Hardaway would go on to form one of the most exciting assemblies in the NBA, the Run TMC, and also have his jersey retired by the Heat to honor the later part of his career.
That goes to show that overreactions based on just a single game, no matter how huge or supposedly indicative of the player’s career, simply make no sense. While it’s true that many great players and NBA legends had amazing debuts, there’s also a certain number of historically good players who completely flopped in their debuts, and those who started their NBA journey on a high note, just to completely crumble and abandon the league in a few years.
With the new NBA season at hand, several highly anticipated rookies will fall under public scrutiny as they make their official NBA debuts. First and foremost, that pertains to DeAndre Ayton, the first overall pick selected by the Suns. The big man from the University of Arizona finished the preseason leading all NBA players in points, rebounds and blocks, showcasing incredible fundamentals on both ends of the floor.
Even though Ayton looked like the most NBA-ready rookie thus far, the hype around the 2018 draft class was mostly reserved for another player. Arguably the best European prospect of all-time, Luka Doncic, has shown several flashes of brilliance during the offseason, shutting up his doubters with every new incredible move taken from his rich arsenal. His overall feel for the game looks really impressive, especially for a guy his age, and it seems that the Mavs got a hold of another transcendental player that will ease Dirk’s transition to deserved retirement.
Outside of Ayton and Doncic, the current favorites to win the 2019 ROTY award, there are several other prospects that deserve immediate attention. It will be interesting to see whether Trae Young meets the expectations and becomes Stephen Curry’s successor, whether Marvin Bagley III turns out to be the new franchise big man the Kings have been desperately searching for, or whether Jaren Jackson Jr. successfully kickstarts the new era of the Grit & Grind in Memphis.
Even though they are yet to log their first official minutes on an NBA court, it’s tough to shake off the impression that this draft class already has lots of upside and will play prominent roles within their respective teams. Following their struggles as they rise to NBA stardom will be one of the most engaging narratives of the new season, especially early on when they will need to prove they have all the physical and mental attributes required to consistently play at the highest level.