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NBA: The 10 Best Rookie Season Performances in League History

Jeremy GottliebContributor IJanuary 21, 2017

NBA: The 10 Best Rookie Season Performances in League History

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    During draft season, the everyday NBA fan gets routinely bombarded with mock drafts, pick analyses, projections, question marks and so forth.

    But the real fun comes in examining each rookie's body of work once his inaugural NBA campaign is over...particularly the high picks.

    Of course, not everyone pans out. But those that do—specifically, the ones who break the mold—are remembered forever as rookies who came in, played right away and took the league by storm.

    Here's a handful of the best rookie performances the NBA has ever witnessed.

10. Hakeem Olajuwon

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    Drafted first overall in 1984 (ahead of Michael Jordan) by the Houston Rockets to team with the previous year's No. 1 pick—Ralph Sampson—to form the Twin Towers, Olajuwon wasted little time making his mark on the NBA.

    As a 22 year old, Olajuwon played 35.5 minutes per game in all 82 games of the 1984-1985 season. He scored 20.6 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked 2.7 shots per night.

    Olajuwon and Sampson (who was the power forward at 7'4) combined to form a devastating front court duo which led the Rockets all the way to the finals in Olajuwon's only second season.

    "The Dream" would go on to play 17 years for the Rockets, win two championships and a league MVP award.

9. LeBron James

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    It's tough to remember any rookie coming into the league surrounded by the hype that LeBron received when he arrived in his hometown of Cleveland straight from high school as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 draft.

    At just 19 and forced to play with a combo of fellow youngsters (Carlos Boozer), knuckleheads (Ricky Davis) and youngsters that were also knuckleheads (Darius Miles), LeBron shined, averaging 21 points, 5.5 boards, six assists and 1.6 steals per game while playing a touch under 40 minutes a night.

    The Cavs won just 35 games that year. But that was the most they'd won since 1997. And they'd become a mainstay in the postseason in just two years, until The Decision cost the city its favorite son and LeBron moved on to Miami.

8. Tim Duncan

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    The consensus No. 1 pick in the 1997 draft, all that was a mystery was who would win the lottery and draft Duncan, a four-year starter from Wake Forest whose old school game and incredible consistency and longevity turned him into arguably the greatest power forward in league history.

    Duncan arrived in San Antonio and helped lead the Spurs to 56 wins in his rookie season, a mere 36 more wins than the team had compiled the previous year. In doing so, he averaged 21 points, 12 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game while playing just a shade under 40 minutes per night.

    Not only did Duncan lead the team in rebounding and blocks (and trail leading scorer David Robinson by just a half a point), he led the Spurs back to the postseason.

    The Spurs would lose to Utah in the Western Conference Semifinals that year. But the next season, Duncan's second, would result in the first of his four championships.

7. Allen Iverson

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    The Sixers were terrible the year before they took Iverson No. 1 overall out of Georgetown. And they were still terrible in 2006-2007, Iverson's rookie year.

    But Iverson's play that season was still more than just eye-opening, it was spectacular—and a sign of things to come.

    Iverson stepped right in and played 40 minutes per night for the 22-win Sixers, who actually won four more games in Iverson's rookie year than in the previous one. 

    He scored 23.5 points and dished out 7.5 assists per game that year, the assist total marking the second highest of his career.

    Philly fans didn't have much to cheer about that season. But Iverson's play certainly gave those fans hope. Just two years later, the Sixers—under Larry Brown—were back in the playoffs en route to an appearance in the finals in 2001.

6. Larry Bird

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    The Celtics were really in the doldrums when Bird arrived for the 1979-1980 season, having won just 61 games combined in the previous two years.

    Yet that's how many they won in Bird's rookie campaign, returning to the playoffs for the first time since 1977. The C's would lose in the Eastern Conference Finals in 1980, but they won the first of three championships with Bird in his second year—1981.

    Bird was Rookie of the Year in 1980, averaging 21.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists: leading what was in large part the same roster from a year prior to a 32-win improvement.

    It was the dawn of yet another in the long history of Celtics' dynasties.

5. David Robinson

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    Robinson was the first overall pick in 1987, but didn't make his NBA debut with the Spurs for another two years thanks to his commitment to Naval service.

    When he did eventually make it to San Antonio, he hardly missed a beat.

    The Admiral exploded onto the NBA scene in 1989, scoring 24.3 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and blocking four shots per game. More importantly, the Spurs went from 21 wins in 1988-1989 to 56 in 1989-1990.

    Robinson was a force for his entire career with the Spurs, once averaging 30 points per game and leading San Antonio to the playoffs in seven consecutive seasons. He would win two rings near the end of his career, after the Spurs scored with Duncan.

    That rookie year though, changed the fortunes of the franchise for a decade.

4. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

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    A huge star both in high school and college, Kareem—then named Lew Alcindor—went first overall to the Milwaukee Bucks in 1969 and picked up in the NBA right where he left off at UCLA.

    In the first of his 20 NBA seasons, Kareem dominated right off the bat, averaging 28.8 points and 14.5 rebounds per game as a rookie. He was an easy choice for Rookie of the Year that season, and led the Bucks to 56 wins in just their second season of existence—29 more than they'd accumulated the year before.

    One year later, after the Bucks had added veteran Oscar Robertson to pair with a young Kareem, Milwaukee won a championship: the first of six for the league's all-time leader in minutes played, field goals, field goal attempts and points scored.

3. Michael Jordan

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    After famously being passed over by the Rockets and Blazers with the first two picks in the 1984 draft, Jordan was selected by the Bulls—who were glad to do the honors.

    After all, he would go on to become the greatest player of all time, winning six titles and changing the NBA forever in the process.

    There were signs of his indelible greatness very early on. In his first season out of North Carolina, Jordan played all 82 games, averaged 38 minutes per night and scored 28.2 points while shooting over 51 percent from the floor.

    The Bulls made their first playoff appearance in four years that season, and just their second in 10. With Jordan in the fold, they would make it every single year of his career, culminating in those six championships from 1990 through 1998.

2. Wilt Chamberlain

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    In Wilt's time, he was so dominant, so powerful, he once averaged 50 points per game. 

    It wasn't in his rookie year, but he was close. Chamberlain was drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors out of the University of Kansas in 1959, and immediately took over the NBA.

    He scored 37.6 points and corralled 27 rebounds per game that year, his third best statistical season. 

    That year marked the first of several in which Wilt's team would lose a playoff series to Bill Russell and the Celtics. 

    Still, the impression he made so soon after arriving on the NBA scene was one of the biggest of all time.

1. Oscar Robertson

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    The original Big O, Robertson once averaged a triple-double in a single season.

    It wasn't his rookie year, it was his second. Still, that first season was the greatest by a rookie in league history.

    Oscar went to the University of Cincinnati and was then taken by the Cincinnati Royals with the first overall pick in the 1960 draft.

    He would go on to average 30.5 points, 10 rebounds and 9.7 assists per game. About as close to a triple-double as it gets.

    The Royals, in just their fourth season in Cincy after moving from Rochester, were struggling in their new digs following a very successful run in western New York. Before Oscar arrived, they'd made the playoffs once in those four seasons.

    Oscar led the Royals—who would later become the Kansas City, then Sacramento, Kings—to six straight playoff appearances in his first seven years. 

    On the strength of his unreal 1960-1961 campaign, Oscar won Rookie of the Year. 

    There were never any first NBA seasons better.

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