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The Greatest Rookie Seasons of All Time: How Does Wembanyama Stack Up to the GOATs

Victor Wembanyama is having a historic rookie season.

“Freak.” “Alien.” “Greatest prospect ever.” There’s a range of adjectives flying around in attempts to describe Victor Wembanyama‘s rookie season, but the message stays the same: we’re witnessing something unlike we’ve ever seen before. Just his physical attributes are jaw-dropping; Wembanyama, or “Wemby” is 7’4” with an absurd eight-foot wingspan. For reference, that makes him the 10th tallest player in league history; his wingspan checks in at third all-time.

But, as I’m sure you know, his size is only a prologue to what makes him so intriguing. Most men who stand at 7’4″ would find it difficult to perform everyday tasks, let alone behind-the-back dribbles, but that’s nowhere near the case here. Wemby couples his extraterrestrial frame with skills that make him unlike any basketball player we’ve ever seen before. He dribbles like a point guard, shoots like a shooting guard, and defends the rim like prime Hakeem Olajuwon. He pushes the ball up the floor, makes flashy passes, and hits step-back threes – things usually reserved for smaller humans.

Wembanyama’s 20.6 points per game leads his San Antonio Spurs, but he also paces the team in rebounds, steals, and blocks. This is all made more impressive when you consider he only plays 28.9 minutes a night, fourth on the team. Additionally, his 3.5 blocks per game lead the entire NBA. If current trends hold, he’ll be the first rookie to lead the league in that category since Manute Bol in 1986. As if that wasn’t enough, the NBA’s blocks leader also cans 1.7 threes per game to pair with 3.5 assists, an unfathomable level of versatility that we simply haven’t seen from someone his size.

Wembanyama is having one of the better rookie seasons of all time, but who else belongs in that category? Where does Wemby’s season rank in comparison to his peers? Without further ado, here are my top five rookie seasons of all time; to make things slightly easier, I’m only considering the “Modern Era,” which, for our purposes, began in 1979-80.

The Greatest Rookie Seasons of All Time

4. (Tied) David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal

Giving the fourth spot to one over the other would be splitting hairs; I figured it would be fairer to appreciate both.

Shaquille O’Neal‘s rookie season saw him average 23/14/2 to go with 3.5 BPG, numbers that earned him one of the most obvious Rookie of the Year awards ever handed out. His immediate achievements are eye-popping: the 7’1″ behemoth became the first rookie to start an All-Star game since Michael Jordan, he finished seventh in MVP voting, and his arrival helped transform the Magic from a 21-61 record to a 41-41 team. Admittedly, it wasn’t perfect – Shaq did average a career-high 3.8 turnovers per game and shot just 59% from the free throw line. Overall, though, Shaq’s rookie year is a rare combination of elite production and tangible impact. His arrival was a lifeline for basketball in Orlando, and instantly changed the trajectory of the franchise.

David Robinson‘s rookie campaign was eerily similar. The parallels are everywhere: “The Admiral” averaged 24/12/2 with 3.9 BPG, and, like Shaq, transformed the Spurs from bad to competitive. He similarly ran away with the Rookie of the Year award as the Spurs won 35 more games than the year prior. Robinson also made the All-Star team, although not as a starter, losing out to Hakeem Olajuwon. His excellent season netted him a sixth-place MVP finish, but the Spurs ultimately flamed out in the playoffs.

It’s worth noting that O’Neal debuted aged 20 and Robinson at 24. Without factoring in age, though, their rookie seasons are very similar.

3. Larry Bird

Larry Bird‘s arrival in Boston sparked a franchise rebirth, as the Celtics went from 29-53 to 61-21 in his debut year. As a rookie, he posted a 21/10/5/2 line on 47% from the field alongside an era-defying 40% from three. Bird’s rookie year saw him make the All-Star game and was the first of nine consecutive All-NBA first-team selections. After a fourth-place MVP finish, he led his Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals before running into the dynastic Pistons. While Bird’s per-game averages stayed consistent into the playoffs, he didn’t elevate his game, and that ultimately keeps him from being ranked any higher.

2. Michael Jordan

At age 21, Michael Jordan joined a historically bad Bulls franchise. While his presence didn’t instantly make them a championship contender, his rookie season was ridiculously impressive nonetheless. Jordan’s 28/7/5/2 rookie stat line was nothing short of absurd; only one other rookie has ever reached those numbers. He cruised to an All-Star starting spot, finished sixth in MVP voting, and made an All-NBA second team. The only thing missing was playoff success – the Bulls flamed out as a first-round exit, but a deep run was never likely to happen with Orlando Woodridge as the team’s second-best player. His regular season numbers are insane enough to overlook a relative lack of team success.

1. Magic Johnson

Magic Johnson at the one spot will ruffle a few feathers. “He didn’t even win Rookie of the Year” you might say. “How can Magic have the greatest rookie season of all time if he wasn’t even the best of his class?”

Ignore the raw per-game statistics for a second. This isn’t to say that 18/8/7/3 on the league’s best team is insufficient, they’re just not quite up to the numbers of a Jordan or a Bird. Instead, his case lies in team impact; before his arrival, the Lakers were consistently solid, making the playoffs three years in a row. In his rookie season, though, he spurred the Lakers over the hump, winning the 1980 NBA Finals.

The legend of Magic’s rookie year only grows when you consider that when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar suffered an injury before game six of the NBA Finals; it was the rookie Johnson that stepped in. In his first-ever professional action at the center position, Magic dropped 42 points, 15 rebounds, and seven assists to clinch a title for the Lakers, winning Finals MVP in the process. He still remains the only rookie to ever win Finals MVP. Sure, he doesn’t have quite as much statistical glamour as some of the others. Ultimately, though, basketball is about winning, and no other rookie has impacted winning as much as Johnson.

Where does Victor Wembanyama stack up?

I already waxed poetic about Wemby’s rookie season, so I’ll spare you the full spiel, but this guy is unreal. It seems like he defies everything we know about basketball every time he steps on the court. Wemby recently posted an absurd 33-15-7-7 stat line in an overtime win against Brooklyn, bringing his season averages up to 20.8/10.4/3.5/1.3/3.5. No other rookie in NBA history comes close to touching those all-around numbers. It’s not just the stats, but the way he’s gotten them – when he’s on his game, he looks flat-out unsolvable. Coaches just don’t have an answer for a 7’4″ guy doing what he does.

His detractors will be quick to point out that Wembanyama’s San Antonio Spurs are bad – really, really bad. At 15-53, they’re hurtling towards another top pick, and their record is on pace to be even worse than last season. To counter that point, though, even the best rookies rarely lead their teams out of the basement in year one. Even LeBron James’ tenure in Cleveland didn’t yield results immediately; the Cavs went just 35-47 with a rookie James. In Wemby’s case, it’s not like he isn’t doing his part: the Spurs’ net rating is eight points better when he’s on the floor. He’s also seemingly improving nearly every game.

The Spurs are awful, and that’s okay. The fact that Wembanyama’s teammates aren’t doing him any favors shouldn’t take away from the season he’s having. His rookie dominance hasn’t immediately given way to contention; that is normal. Wemby is finishing the year strong averaging 22/12/5/5 since the All-Star break – if this pace continues his rookie season could be up there with the best we’ve ever seen.




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