Ranking NBA's Top 10 Rookie Seasons Among Today's Current Stars

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistOctober 3, 2019

Ranking NBA's Top 10 Rookie Seasons Among Today's Current Stars

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    ANN HEISENFELT/Associated Press

    At the dawn of every NBA season, the incoming rookie class provides a ray of hope for fans all over the league.

    This year, the mantle has passed from Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Deandre Ayton to Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, RJ Barrett and a host of others from the 2019 draft class.

    But before they officially take the stage, let's look back at the best rookie seasons among today's stars.

    To find the top 10, we looked at three different metrics (all housed at Basketball Reference and tracked back to the earliest season of any active player), as well as their cumulative variants.

    First, every active player who logged at least 1,000 minutes as a rookie was sorted by the average of their ranks from that season in box plus/minus (and wins over replacement player, which is value over replacement player times 2.7), win shares per 48 minutes (and win shares) and game score per 48 minutes (and cumulative game score).

    That led to a top 10 that included Chris Paul, Ben Simmons, Blake Griffin, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokic, Pau Gasol, Mitchell Robinson, Anthony Davis, Doncic and Greg Monroe.

    And while that list made plenty of sense, it didn't feel quite right. Some of those players, like Jokic and Robinson, didn't carry huge responsibilities as rookies.

    So a usage qualifier was added. With the minimum thresholds set at 1,000 minutes and a usage percentage of at least 20, you get the following top 10.

10. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers, 2003-04

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    Fernando Medina/Getty Images

    Basic Rookie Stats: 20.9 PTS, 5.9 AST, 5.5 REB, 1.6 STL, 0.7 BLK

    Per 75 Possessions: 21.0 PTS, 5.9 AST, 5.5 REB, 1.7 STL, 0.7 BLK

    Shooting: 41.7 FG%, 29.0 3P%, 43.8 eFG%, 75.4 FT%, 48.8 TS%

    Advanced Rookie Stats: 1.9 BPM (8.4 WORP), 0.078 WS/48 (5.1 win shares), 17.6 GmSc/48 (1,145.5 Cumulative GmSc) 

    It may be a bit surprising to see LeBron James this far down the list. After all, along with Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Tyreke Evans and Luka Doncic, LeBron is one of just five rookies in NBA history to average at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists.

    But even in an era during which efficiency was down (the average true shooting percentage in 2003-04 was 51.6, compared to 56.0 in 2018-19), LeBron's true shooting percentage was well below average. Plus, being on a team that won just 35 games suppressed James' value, at least in terms of the raw numbers.

    What could not be suppressed, though, was LeBron's immense talent.

    It was clear from Year 1 that he was special. As his basic numbers suggested, he could do a little bit of everything. In March of that season, he had a game in which he put up 41 points and 13 assists. Robertson (who did it three times) and Trae Young are the only other rookies in league history to hit both those marks in a single contest.

    That game, as well as 12 other 30-point performances as a rookie, served as foreshadowing for a career that would end up being one of the greatest of all time.

9. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz, 2017-18

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    Basic Rookie Stats: 20.5 PTS, 3.7 REB, 3.7 AST, 2.4 3P, 1.5 STL

    Per 75 Possessions: 23.0 PTS, 4.2 REB, 4.1 AST, 2.7 3P, 1.7 STL

    Shooting: 43.7 FG%, 34.0 3P%, 50.6 eFG%, 80.5 FT%, 54.1 TS%

    Advanced Rookie Stats: 1.1 BPM (5.7 WORP), 0.095 WS/48 (5.2 WS), 18.7 GmSc/48 (1,027 Cumulative GmSc)

    One might argue for some way to include playoff performance. But with so many top-tier rookies on bad teams that miss the postseason, doing so might eliminate several great seasons.

    If playoff runs were accounted for, there's a decent chance Mitchell would have risen higher up this list.

    When you combine regular-season and playoff numbers, Mitchell finished 2017-18 with 1,884 points, 361 rebounds and 337 assists. Michael Jordan, Mitch Richmond and Oscar Robertson are the only other rookies in NBA history who hit all three marks.

    Throw in steals and it's just Mitchell and MJ.

    Of course, Mitchell still needs some work on efficiency. He's yet to finish a season with an above-average true shooting percentage. And his second playoff run ended earlier than the first.

    But few players in league history have had a comparable offensive role over the course of their first two seasons. Plus, Mitchell looks poised for the third-year breakout now that he's surrounded by multiple playmakers such as Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic.

    With defenses no longer able to key in on Mitchell the way they have in the past, he should enjoy more open looks.

8. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns, 2018-19

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Basic Rookie Stats: 16.3 PTS, 10.3 REB, 1.8 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.9 BLK

    Per 75 Possessions: 19.0 PTS, 12.0 REB, 2.1 AST, 1.0 STL, 1.1 BLK

    Shooting: 58.5 FG%, 58.5 eFG%, 74.6 FT%, 60.8 TS%

    Advanced Rookie Stats: 0.2 BPM (3.2 WORP), 0.128 WS/48 (5.8 WS), 22.6 GmSc/48 (1,029.5 Cumulative GmSc) 

    It's kind of a shame Deandre Ayton's rookie season just happened to take place at the same time as Doncic's and Trae Young's. Most years, his numbers would've gotten significantly more attention.

    Arvydas Sabonis, who was 31 for his first NBA campaign, is the only rookie in NBA history who matched or exceeded Ayton's per-75-possession averages for points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals.

    "Ayton was dropped into an unforgiving situation, and has already excelled on offense while having his moments on defense," The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor wrote in December.

    If those defensive moments show up more consistently, Ayton could crash the ongoing big man revolution.

    He's probably a few years away from the level of guys like Jokic or Towns (if he ever gets there), but he showed loads of potential in Year 1. During an era in which everyone, including bigs, is expected to have perimeter skill, Ayton has shown the ability to fit into today's game.

7. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Hornets, 2012-13

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Basic Rookie Stats: 13.5 PTS, 8.2 REB, 1.8 BLK, 1.2 STL, 1.0 AST

    Per 75 Possessions: 19.1 PTS, 11.5 REB, 2.5 BLK, 1.7 STL, 1.4 AST

    Shooting: 51.6 FG%, 51.6 eFG%, 75.1 FT%, 55.9 TS%

    Advanced Rookie Stats: 2.3 BPM (5.4 WORP), 0.159 WS/48 (6.1 WS), 20.3 GmSc/48 (780.8 Cumulative GmSc)

    Anthony Davis was one of the most hyped prospects of the last 20 years.

    "While he surely has plenty of things to work on," DraftExpress' Jonathan Givony wrote, "it's highly unlikely that he'll be anything less than a huge success in the NBA."

    Givony, of course, was right.

    Since the start of the 2012-13 season, Davis is sixth in the league in total win shares, trailing only James Harden, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Chris Paul. And it was clear pretty early on that he would live up to the hype.

    "He displayed an offensive game that people said would take years to develop (if ever)," Bourbon Street Shots' James Grayson wrote after AD's rookie campaign. "He blocked and altered countless shots. He grabbed rebounds that many thought were impossible to gather. Upon reflection he lived up to the hype and in some ways was a little bit more than it."

    As you can see above, Davis' per-game numbers don't jump off the screen, but that was mostly due to his 28.8 minutes per game. When he was on the floor, he did a little bit of everything.

6. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks, 2018-19

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Basic Rookie Stats: 21.2 PTS, 7.8 REB, 6.0 AST, 2.3 3P, 1.1 STL

    Per 75 Possessions: 23.9 PTS, 8.8 REB, 6.7 AST, 2.6 3P, 1.2 STL

    Shooting: 42.7 FG%, 32.7 3P%, 49.7 eFG%, 71.3 FT%, 54.5 TS%

    Advanced Rookie Stats: 4.1 BPM (9.7 WORP), 0.101 WS/48 (4.9 WS), 23.6 GmSc/48 (1,137.6 Cumulative GmSc)

    Throughout his rookie campaign with the Dallas Mavericks, Luka Doncic appeared poised to one day take over the NBA.

    He took the reins of his team's offense almost right away. He showed an understanding of the pick-and-roll that went well beyond his years. He had a flair for the dramatic and clutch situations.

    "I think you have to be born with that stuff," teammate J.J. Barea said, per Bleacher Report's Sean Highkin. "He's one of those guys who's born with it."

    Right as Dallas' last great international star, Dirk Nowitzki, walked away from the league, another one arrived.

    FiveThirtyEight's CARMELO projection system tabs Doncic's five-year market value at a whopping $362.3 million. Some of his "10 most comparable players" include Kyrie Irving, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook and Lamar Odom.

    As the 20-year old develops his strengths and works on his defense, he has the chance to become an MVP candidate. And, like Nowitzki, he has the potential to grow into the No. 1 option on a title team.

5. Pau Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies, 2001-02

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    Joe Murphy/Getty Images

    Basic Rookie Stats: 17.6 PTS, 8.9 REB, 2.7 AST, 2.1 BLK

    Per 75 Possessions: 18.9 PTS, 9.6 REB, 2.9 AST, 2.2 BLK

    Shooting: 51.8 FG%, 51.8 eFG%, 70.9 FT%, 56.6 TS%

    Advanced Rookie Stats: 2.2 BPM (8.6 WORP), 0.121 WS/48 (7.6 WS), 19.0 GmSc/48 (1,189 Cumulative GmSc) 

    "Now we understand why NBA scouts were drooling over him last summer," ESPN's Bill Simmons wrote of Pau Gasol after his rookie campaign with the Memphis Grizzlies.

    That season, Gasol was 41st in the league in points per game, 18th in rebounds per game and ninth in blocks per game. Among 7-footers, he was third in assists per game.

    The only player, regardless of height, who matched or exceeded Gasol's marks in all four numbers during the 2001-02 season was Tim Duncan.

    Like Doncic, Gasol's skill set was both well-rounded and well-developed by the time he showed up to the United States full-time. Nowitzki rightfully gets most of the credit for pioneering the stretch 4 and helping to usher in the positionless era, but Gasol was right there with him.

    On top of a refined post game and an ability to protect the rim, Gasol could also create for others, handle the ball a little bit and stretch the floor out to the three-point line. Eventually, he'd get beyond it. Over his last five campaigns, Gasol has shot 42.5 percent on a three-point attempt per game.

    In 2009 and 2010, Gasol's unselfishness and malleable skills were the perfect complement to the Los Angeles Lakers' scoring machine, Kobe Bryant. Together, they won back-to-back titles.

    Over the course of those two seasons (and postseasons), Gasol had 37.0 wins over replacement player. Kobe had 35.1.

4. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves, 2015-16

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    Basic Rookie Stats: 18.3 PTS, 10.5 REB, 2.0 AST, 1.7 BLK, 0.7 STL

    Per 75 Possessions: 21.6 PTS, 12.3 REB, 2.3 AST, 2.0 BLK, 0.8 STL

    Shooting: 54.2 FG%, 34.1 3P%, 55.5 eFG%, 81.1 FT%, 59.0 TS%

    Advanced Rookie Stats: 2.8 BPM (8.6 WORP), 0.151 WS/48 (8.3 win shares), 23.1 GmSc/48 (1,262.8 Cumulative GmSc)

    Karl-Anthony Towns entered the NBA as one of its most efficient scorers.

    Among the 33 players who averaged at least as many points as Towns during his rookie campaign, he ranked sixth in true shooting percentage. Stephen Curry, who posted the best offensive box plus/minus of all time that season, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden and Klay Thompson were the only players ahead of KAT.

    Towns could (and still can) play in the post, shoot from the outside and attack off the dribble. Remarkably, he's only gotten more efficient since his rookie campaign.

    And he's off to a historically great start to his career. Only 12 players in NBA history had more wins over replacement player through their first four seasons. David Robinson, Charles Barkley, Tim Duncan, Nikola Jokic, Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon are the lone bigs among that group.

    "It's just a matter of time for me," Towns told The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears in 2017 about when he could become the league's best player. Though he's only made one All-NBA team (third team in 2017-18), that potential is still easy to see.

    Few players in the history of the game have possessed Towns' combination of size and skill. If he can leverage some of that into more impactful defense, the accolades should come rolling in.

3. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers, 2010-11

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Basic Rookie Stats: 22.5 PTS, 12.1 REB, 3.8 AST, 0.8 STL

    Per 75 Possessions: 23.0 PTS, 12.3 REB, 3.9 AST, 0.8 STL

    Shooting: 50.6 FG%, 29.2 3P%, 50.8 eFG%, 64.2 FT%, 54.9 TS%

    Advanced Rookie Stats: 3.2 BPM (10.8 WORP), 0.1152 WS/48 (9.8 win shares), 22.4 GmSc/48 (1,451.4 Cumulative GmSc) 

    Given the way he plays now, it's almost hard to remember the dynamic force Blake Griffin was as a rookie for the Los Angeles Clippers in 2010-11.

    He instantly made the Clips appointment viewing with his thunderous jams, dominance on the boards and ability to run the break. He was like Lamar Odom (and all of his point-forward skills) combined with Russell Westbrook's insatiable desire to destroy the rim.

    That season, Griffin was 12th in the league in points per game and fourth in rebounds. Among 6'10"-plus players, he trailed only Hedo Turkoglu in assists per game.

    He's the only player on this list who made the All-Star team in Year 1. And while he sat out what would have been his rookie season in 2009-10 with an injury, he still deserves credit for reaching the level he did in 2010-11.

    Like Gasol, Griffin helped usher in a new era of skill and playmaking for big men. He just brought a ferocious athleticism with him that few could match.

    Again, Griffin is a different player now. Age and injuries have forced him to change, and he's done so admirably. But in case any newer fans of the league don't know, feel free to remind them how Blake used to cram all over defenders.

2. Chris Paul, New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets, 2005-06

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    DAVID ZALUBOWSKI/Associated Press

    Basic Rookie Stats: 16.1 PTS, 7.8 AST, 5.1 REB, 2.2 STL

    Per 75 Possessions: 18.1 PTS, 8.8 AST, 5.8 REB, 2.5 STL

    Shooting: 43.0 FG%, 28.2 3P%, 45.6 eFG%, 84.7 FT%, 54.6 TS%

    Advanced Rookie Stats: 6.1 BPM (15.4 WORP), 0.178 WS/48 (10.4 win shares), 20.7 GmSc/48 (1,209 Cumulative GmSc)

    Throughout his career, Chris Paul has been an analytics darling.

    He's fifth in NBA history in career box plus/minus, trailing only LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and David Robinson. He's fourth in career win shares per 48 minutes, trailing only MJ, Robinson and Wilt Chamberlain.

    And he didn't have to overcome a slow start to build up that resume. 

    During Paul's rookie season (2005-06), his 6.1 box plus/minus ranked sixth league-wide. He was 17th in win shares per 48 minutes. For context's sake, the last five Rookie of the Year winners finished 23rd, 18th, 145th, 32nd and 230th in box plus/minus during their respective first seasons.

    Paul's ability to command every aspect of a basketball game from the point of attack (and on both ends of the floor) is nearly unrivaled, and he's been doing it from the beginning.

    On offense, he always seems to have the ball on a string, knows exactly where his teammates are and where they will be, and has what feels like an automatic mid-range jumper. Defensively, he's shown an ability to lock up players significantly bigger than him, and he's a ball hawk who ranks ninth all-time in career steal percentage.

    He was almost all those things right off the bat. It remains remarkable that his 6.1 rookie box plus/minus is so close to the career mark that ranks fifth all-time.

1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers, 2017-18

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Basic Rookie Stats: 15.8 PTS, 8.2 AST, 8.1 REB, 1.7 STL, 0.9 BLK

    Per 75 Possessions: 16.9 PTS, 8.7 AST, 8.7 REB, 1.8 STL, 0.9 BLK

    Shooting: 54.5 FG%, 54.5 eFG%, 56.0 FT%, 55.7 TS%

    Advanced Rookie Stats: 4.6 BPM (12.4 WORP), 0.162 WS/48 (9.2 WS). 22.5 GmSc/48 (1,279.8 Cumulative GmSc)

    Like Griffin, Ben Simmons got something of a redshirt year before he actually suited up in the NBA. But you aren't a rookie until you actually step on the floor, and Simmons dominated from that point.

    Much has been made of his lack of three-point attempts over the course of his career. Given his ability to dominate the game right out of the gate, it's tough to blame him for sticking with what has worked.

    Simmons had 1,279 points, 661 assists and 659 rebounds as a rookie. Oscar Robertson is the only other player in NBA history who hit all three marks during his first season.

    And over the course of that campaign, the Philadelphia 76ers' net rating was 7.3 points per 100 possessions better when Simmons was on the floor.

    "Simmons is already one of the NBA's 15-to-20 best players and a top-five playmaker," The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor wrote after the 2017-18 season. "Simmons passes like he's using GameShark. ... he guarded positions 1 through 4 for almost equal amounts of time, according to data aggregated by Nylon Calculus's Krishna Narsu, which means that he's statistically one of the NBA's most versatile defenders."

    Of course, that net rating swing was a dastardly minus-28.2 in that postseason. It was minus-2.4 over the course of his second regular season.

    The inability to shoot has made game-planning for Simmons relatively easy. Just play off him (almost dramatically) when he's on the ball and he'll try to force passes into crowded defenses.

    Once he demonstrates an ability—and perhaps more importantly, a willingness—to put up open jump shots, defenders will have to press up on him when handles the ball. And one fewer defender on his eventual targets could make his passing numbers even more impressive.


    All stats, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of Basketball Reference.