There’s always a healthy skepticism when teenagers make the leap from high school or European leagues to the NBA. Can they take the physicality of an 82-game NBA schedule? When the San Antonio Spurs selected Victor Wembanyama as No. 1 overall, people took a look at the slender 7-foot-5, 210-pound rookie and thought the adjustment could be difficult.
But through five games, Wembanyama has already started to prove that he will be a productive player when healthy. Wembanyama made Black sports news when he scored a career-high 38 points and grabbed 10 rebounds against the Phoenix Suns on Nov. 2. The Spurs won the game 132-121 and improved to 3-2 on the season.
Wembanyama is averaging 20.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks per game. If Wembanyama is able to stay on the court, he will be the odds-on favorite to win the Rookie of the Year. Here’s a look at some other NBA players who had great rookie seasons.
Wilt the Stilt Owns Philadelphia
Wilt Chamberlain made life difficult for opponents in the NBA from Day 1. During a career that would stretch from 1959 to 1973, Chamberlain made it difficult for anyone to keep up with him. But Chamberlain’s rookie season was an especially strong one.
He became one of two players — along with Wes Unseld — to win the NBA MVP and Rookie of the Year in 1960. Chamberlain, 23, led the league in scoring and rebounding by finishing with 37.6 points and 27 rebounds per game. Signing Chamberlain helped turn Philadelphia from last place to second in the division.
In the postseason, Chamberlain would suffer from something that would happen throughout his time. Chamberlain and the Warriors would be eliminated by the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Division Finals in six games. The Celtics would frequently eliminate Chamberlain in the playoffs during his time with the Warriors and later with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Kareem Turned Around Basketball in Milwaukee
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, quickly set the Bucks on a path to an NBA title when he arrived for the 1969-70 season. Abdul-Jabbar started all 82 games for Milwaukee. He finished by averaging 28.8 points and 14.5 rebounds per game. The Bucks would end up going from winning 27 games the year before to 56 in his rookie year.
Abdul-Jabbar would go on to be one of the NBA’s greatest players, though he usually doesn’t get a ton of credit because of his aloof personality, and offered Wembanyama advice on how to play in the NBA before his debut. Abdul-Jabbar led the Bucks to the title in 1971 and would later help the Los Angeles Lakers win five times.
Bird Scores First Victory Over Magic
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had one of the greatest rivalries in sports history. With the racial undertones, the reputation of the NBA at the time both entered the league and their previous meeting in the NCAA championship game, the duo’s battles in the 1980s provided plenty of news and excitement for an entire decade. It is likely that their rivalry helped vault the NBA from having games tape delayed to the popular status the league has now.
Bird helped the Celtics go from 29-53 the year before to a 61-21 record in his rookie season. While Boston lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals to the 76ers, they were clearly on the upward trajectory. Bird earned first-team All-NBA honors while averaging 21.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game.
Bird was chosen as Rookie of the Year over Johnson by grabbing 63 of the 66 first-place votes. While Bird got the individual glory, Johnson’s team went straight to the top. Johnson replaced Abdul-Jabbar at center in Game 7 of the NBA Finals and scored 42 points and grabbed 15 rebounds to help Los Angeles win the championship.
Spurs Had to Wait For Navy to be Done with Robinson
David Robinson was a force for the U.S. Naval Academy’s basketball team. He took the Midshipman to the Elite 8 in the late 1980s but couldn’t join the San Antonio Spurs after being chosen in the first round of the draft due to military commitments. Anyone looking at up-to-date sports news will see the Spurs saw Robinson was worth the wait.
Robinson averaged 24.3 points, 12 rebounds, and 3.9 rebounds per game as a rookie. San Antonio, which had won 21 games the season before, would rally to go on and win the Midwest Division title during Robinson’s rookie year. He would later team up with future Hall of Famer forward Tim Duncan to kick off the golden era of San Antonio basketball.
Robinson would go on to help San Antonio win two NBA championships and was the league’s MVP in 1995.
Unseld Was Impressive Rebounder Among the Trees
Battling for rebounds as a 6-foot-7 center could be difficult for Wes Unseld. During his career, Unseld has to compete against monsters like Abdul-Jabbar and Chamberlain. When Unseld came into the league in 1968-69 after being drafted by the Baltimore Bullets, he immediately proved he was tough enough to compete.
Unseld wasn’t the best scorer during his rookie season, averaging 13.8 points per game. However, Unseld was nearly unequaled in the rebounding department. He pulled down 18.2 rebounds per game to finish second in the league behind Chamberlain. Unseld would win Rookie of the Year and MVP.
However, Unseld had a lot of competition for Rookie of the Year. San Diego Rockets’ star Elvin Hayes led the league in scoring and was fourth in rebounding. However, Unseld garnered two-thirds of the votes for Rookie of the Year, with Hayes grabbing the other part of the vote.
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