It was two rookies who captured the imaginations of basketball aficionados everywhere over the final months of the 2017-18 season, one in the Eastern Conference and the other in the West.
The former, a point guard in the body of a freakish power forward, did so by dishing out dazzling dimes and bullying opponents on the block. While the latter, a normal-sized combo guard with not-so-normal athletic prowess, did so by leading an elite team in nightly scoring thanks to a assortment of tough shots in his repertoire along with a keen ability to get in the paint.
The historic seasons put on by the two young guys were among the best first-year campaigns in recent memory, and got us thinking about other impressive debuts.
So we decided to rank the top 15 rookie campaigns dating back to 2000-01.
Without further ado, let’s get into it.
15. Brandon Roy (Portland), 2006-07
The 2006-07 Rookie of the Year, Brandon Roy hit the ground running in his first season with the Portland Trail Blazers.
Roy’s first-year marks – 16.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.0 assists nightly on impressive 45.6/37.7/83.8 shooting splits – made the Washington product appear to be next in line among the league’s great guards.
And for what it’s worth, Roy did manage to have an impressive career, earning three All-Star bids and two All-NBA nods (one 2nd and one 3rd Team appearance) over his six years of service.
Unfortunately, constant knee troubles forced the Portland guard to retire after his Age-28 season, right when he should have been hitting his professional peak.
Nevertheless, Roy’s career, albeit short, wound up being memorable, and his rookie season was one of the most efficient – and impressive – since the turn of the century.
14. Yao Ming (Houston), 2002-03
One of the most mysterious-yet-exciting international prospects in recent NBA history, the behemoth out of China known as Yao Ming did not disappoint once he arrived to the States and joined the Houston Rockets.
The 7-foot-6 Hall of Famer joined the NBA for the 2002-03 season, and put up moderately promising numbers in his first year. He averaged 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per contest as a rookie, earning 1st Team All-Rookie honors for his contributions.
Of course, Yao’s play really took off after the opening salvos of his career, as he would end up making three All-NBA 3rd Teams and two All-NBA 2nd Teams throughout his time in the Association.
Nevertheless, it should be noted: He was far from a slouch as a rookie.
Yao scored at least 20 points 16 times in his first year, including a ridiculous 30-point performance against the Dallas Mavericks, in which the Chinese big man successfully converted on 10 of his 12 field-goal attempts.
13. Damian Lillard (Portland), 2012-13
Though Damian Lillard didn’t arrive to the NBA with close to the fanfare Yao did, he was even more impressive than the Hall-of-Fame center in his first season with the Blazers.
The four-year Weber State product averaged 19.0 points, 6.5 assists and 2.3 three-pointers per game in his first campaign, flashing brilliance from beyond the arc and decent vision as a distributor.
More than anything, however, it was clear right away Lillard was going to be a special scorer. And it was never more apparent than on March 8, 2013, when Lillard went for 35 points and nine assists against the San Antonio Spurs’ third-ranked defense.
Lillard wound up winning Rookie of the Year in 2012-13, a fitting reward for his outstanding first season as a pro.
12. Amare Stoudemire (Phoenix), 2002-03
After being selected ninth overall by the Phoenix Suns in the 2002 draft, it didn’t take long for Amare Stoudemire to break his way into the team’s starting lineup.
Ten games into the season and staring at a 5-5 record, head coach Frank Johnson opted to move his prized rookie into the opening unit.
Safe to say, it was the right decision.
From that point on, Stoudemire averaged 14.4 points and 9.9 rebounds nightly, and became a pivotal piece on a team that won 44 games and took a nasty Spurs squad to six games in the first round of the playoffs.
The 2002-03 Rookie of the Year, Stoudemire’s career – with five All-NBA appearances and six All-Star bids – would end up being special.
And it all started with a strong rookie campaign.
11. Kevin Durant (Seattle), 2007-08
As a member of the then-Seattle SuperSonics, Kevin Durant had the luxury of taking his rookie-year lumps on a very bad team with zero expectations.
Even so, the Texas product had himself an impressive first campaign. Durant averaged 20.3 points and 4.4 rebounds per contest as a rookie, despite the fact his head coach, PJ Carlesimo, slotted him into a 2-guard role unfit for his skill set.
Durant’s efficiency suffered as a result, as he shot 43.0 percent from the floor and a paltry 28.8 percent from beyond the arc in 2007-08.
The Sonics would go on to win 20 games that season, but Durant’s counting stats were so good he took home Rookie of the Year honors anyway.
10. Derrick Rose (Chicago), 2008-09
As a member of the Chicago Bulls, Derrick Rose had quite the exciting first regular season. Averaging 16.8 points, 3.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists per contest, Rose took the league by storm with his explosive, clutch style of play.
Even more importantly, however, he took it to another level once the games started to matter more, in the postseason, against one of the best teams in the NBA.
Facing the 2008-09 title-favorite Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs, Rose put up 19.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.4 assists nightly in the seven-game series, with his most impressive showing coming in his postseason debut.
In Game 1, Rose scored 36 points on 12-of-19 shooting, while chipping in 11 assists in what was two-point Chicago win.
To this day, Rose remains tied with the legendary Kareem-Abdul Jabbar for most points scored in a rookie’s first playoff outing – a ridiculous accomplishment for the former No. 1 pick.
At that point, the Memphis product looked like he was about to embark on a Hall-of-Fame career. And though he did go on to win the 2011 MVP trophy, since then, injuries have unfortunately put a damper on what had the makings of a special player.
9. Donovan Mitchell (Utah), 2017-18
The fact Donovan Mitchell fell to the 13th pick of the 2018 draft looks ludicrous in hindsight.
The guard out of Louisville followed up the slight by averaging 20.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists per contest as a member of the Utah Jazz, helping lead the team to 48 wins and a playoff spot in the stacked Western Conference.
Utah desperately lacked scoring following the departure of Gordon Hayward last summer. The fact Mitchell, as a rookie, was able to take charge and aptly fill the hole left behind the All-Star wing is beyond impressive.
Mitchell’s efficiency wasn’t great (43.7 percent from the field, 34.0 percent from deep), but that’s quite understandable considering the circumstances.
What’s more, the 6-foot-3 guard took his play to another level in the postseason. Through four playoff games, Mitchell averaged an absurd 27.5 points and 8.5 rebounds nightly against a tough Oklahoma City Thunder squad, and has his team on the brink of eliminating an opponent with a lot more star power on it.
Impressive stuff from Mitchell, whose career will be exhilarating to watch unfold going forward.
8. Carmelo Anthony (Denver), 2003-04
Speaking of Oklahoma City star power, Carmelo Anthony enjoyed an excellent rookie campaign in his own right back when his career was just getting started.
The Syracuse legend averaged 21.0 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists per contest as a first-year member of the Denver Nuggets, helping lead the team to 43 wins and a sixth seed in the Western Conference. Anthony had 10 30-plus-point performances in his first season, including an absurd 41-point against the then-Sonics, in which he made 19 of his 29 field-goal attempts.
The Nuggets didn’t make much of a run once they reached the postseason (Denver was ousted 3-1 by the Minnesota Timberwolves), but the fact Anthony was able to make such an impact right away made his rookie campaign memorable.
7. Tyreke Evans (Sacramento), 2009-10
Much like Rose, Tyreke Evans appeared destined for stardom in his first year of professional basketball.
As a member of the Sacramento Kings, the 6-foot-6 ball-handler averaged 20.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.8 assists per contest, becoming one of just four rookies to ever put up at least 20/5/5 for an entire season. The other three were Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson and a player who’s coming up later in our countdown.
Not bad company to be in for Evans.
The Memphis product would go on to win Rookie of the Year in 2009-10, beating out future two-time league MVP Stephen Curry in the process.
Unfortunately, injuries and poor shooting have hampered much of Evans’ career since then, and he was never really able to build on the success of his first campaign.
6. Pau Gasol (Memphis), 2001-02
Fortunate enough to arrive to the NBA after years of professional experience in the Spanish Liga ACB, Pau Gasol was able to produce like an elite big man right away in his first season.
As a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, the big Spaniard averaged 17.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.1 blocks as a rookie, earning Rookie of the Year honors in 2001-02 for his troubles.
Gasol is one of just three rookies to average at least 17.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.0 blocks since 1973-74, the other two being Tim Duncan and Chris Webber. That’s not a shabby group of big men right there.
Though Memphis wasn’t able to enjoy much team success that season, Gasol’s rookie campaign was still a spectacular show of first-year prosperity.
5. Karl-Anthony Towns (Minnesota), 2015-16
If forced to choose the most apt replica of Gasol’s first season, it would undoubtedly be Karl-Anthony Towns.
Efficient scoring? Check.
- Towns averaged 18.3 points on 54.2 shooting in his first season.
Rebounding and distribution skills? Yep.
- The Minnesota Timberwolves big man secured 10.5 rebounds nightly as a rookie, while flashing creative passing chops on his way to putting up 2.0 assists per contest.
Rare skill outside the paint for a 7-footer? No doubt.
- Towns attempted 88 triples in his first year, successfully converting 34.1 percent of them.
Rookie of the Year? But of course.
- The Kentucky product was the fifth unanimous winner of the award since 1984.
Also similarly to Gasol, Towns’ team struggled mightily during his rookie season. But that doesn’t take away from how special the opening salvos of his career were.
4. LeBron James (Cleveland), 2003-04
Easily the greatest player since the turn of the century, LeBron James also had one of the most memorable rookie seasons since 2000-01.
James’ numbers – 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per contest – were jaw-dropping even despite his lack of efficiency, and the Cleveland Cavaliers saw an immediate 18-win improvement from the year prior to drafting the future four-time MVP.
James went on to reach huge heights as a member of the Cavaliers, including winning the 2016 NBA championship, and it all started on the road in Sleep Train Arena against the Sacramento Kings.
3. Chris Paul (New Orleans), 2005-06
From the jump, Chris Paul was a pivotal piece for the then-New Orleans Hornets. Drafted fourth overall out of Wake Forest, Paul was a starter in all 78 games he was available for as a rookie, and the numbers he put up made it clear why.
In 2005-06, the 6-foot point guard averaged 16.1 points, 5.1 rebounds, 7.8 assists and 2.2 steals per contest – marks so impressive that they put Paul’s rookie year in statistically elite company.
Only three other rookie lead guards dating back to 1973-74 have averaged at least 16 points, 7 assists and 2 steals over a full season: Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson and Allen Iverson.
Paul won Rookie of the Year in 2005-06. And though the Hornets struggled that season and the one following, failing to reach a .500 record in either campaign, by Year-3 of Paul’s tenure with the club, New Orleans became a 56-win titan, mostly thanks to the elite production out of their starting point guard.
2. Ben Simmons (Philadelphia), 2017-18
Full disclosure: The next two players on our list did have the benefit being redshirt rookies, meaning they were drafted, sat out for a season (due to injury) and suited up for the first time the year after being drafted.
And though there is value in that (both guys were able to learn about the ins and outs of life in the Association without the pressure of having to produce right away), that doesn’t make what they did as rookies any less impressive.
First up is Ben Simmons, whose play resembles a taller reincarnation of No. 4 on our list, and put up numbers not just unheard of for a rookie – but unheard of for a 10-year vet.
In 2017-18, Simmons averaged 15.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 8.2 assists and 1.7 steals nightly while shooting a pristine 54.5 percent from the floor. The only other players ever to put up at a 15/8/8 stat line for an entire season are James, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson and Russell Westbrook.
Basically, right off the bat, Simmons produced like a future Hall-of-Famer. And he did so as a 21-year-old rookie.
For the concerns about his lack of a jumper and how that would affect him when teams could pack the paint and force him to shoot, that didn’t really matter in his first playoff appearance. Simmons actually upped his counting stats to 19.3 points, 10.8 rebounds and 9.8 assists per contest in his first taste of postseason action, and led the Philadelphia 76ers out of the first round even despite missing Joel Embiid for two games.
To call Simmons’ first season impressive would be underselling it. The Australian ball-handler flat-out looked like a future MVP winner in his rookie campaign.
And like Mitchell, tracking the heights Simmons will reach is going to be enthralling for basketball fans everywhere.
1. Blake Griffin (LA Clippers), 2010-11
Before Simmons, there was Griffin – the original redshirt rookie.
Drafted out of Oklahoma No. 1 overall by the Los Angeles Clippers, Griffin suffered a stress fracture in his knee during the preseason, which forced him to miss what was supposed to be first season.
The athletic big man returned a year later and more than made up for lost time.
Griffin averaged 22.2 points, 12.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists per contest in his rookie season, becoming the first first-year player to earn All-Star honors since Yao in 2003 and Tim Duncan in 1998.
Griffin’s most memorable outing that season came against another big man featured in this countdown, Stoudemire, on Nov. 20, 2010.
The two explosive power forwards put on an absolute show, dazzling with high-flying dunk after high-flying dunk.
That was that game that truly put Griffin on the map in the NBA, and gave everyone a glimpse of his ceiling as a player.
Injuries somewhat robbed Griffin of his peak, but he’s adapted nicely by improving his overall skill level which has allowed him to enjoy five All-Star and four All-NBA appearances.
You can find Frank Urbina on Twitter @frankurbina_.
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