Before Wemby: A Look Back at Other First-Year NBA Phenoms

A look at some of the most hyped rookies to enter the NBA and how they fared in their first campaigns in the league.

November 2, 2023

The last few NBA drafts have featured potentially franchise-altering players with Cade Cunningham, Paolo Banchero and Victor “Wemby” Wembanyama have been the top overall picks in the last three years.

Wemby (currently -160 on Tipico Sportsbook to win NBA Rookie of the Year) has received by far the most hype of the group, and he’s delivered by averaging 16.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.8 blocks and steals per game in his very young career. Of course, that’s only a four-game sample, but it looks like he’s well on his way to being a star in the league while making a massive impact on the overall fortunes of the Spurs. With that backdrop, let’s take a look at some of the most hyped rookies to enter the NBA and how they fared in their first campaigns in the league.


Wilt Chamberlain, 1959-60

Needless to say the NBA has changed significantly since Chamberlain entered the league. However, his numbers translate exceptionally regardless of era, as he averaged 37.6 points and 27 rebounds per game as a rookie. Defensive stats weren’t kept at the time, but he was known as a strong defender and was immediately selected to the All-NBA First Team and unsurprisingly won Rookie of the Year honors.

While Wembanyama won’t repeat Chamberlain’s stat line, he could parallel the Hall of Famer in how he helps turn his franchise around. The year before Chamberlain was selected by the Philadelphia Warriors, the team went 32-40. In his rookie season, the team improved to 49-26 and went on a long run of postseason success.

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, 1979-80

Johnson and Bird are worth mentioning together not only because they were rookies together but also because of how their careers remained intertwined. Johnson was selected first overall in the 1979 draft and Bird sixth, so both came into the league with high expectations. The pair got things done differently, which makes sense given their style of play and position.

Johnson was a natural playmaker and averaged 7.3 assists per game as well as 2.4 steals in his first year. Bird was a natural scorer, as he averaged 0.7 three pointers – a significant mark given the context of the NBA in that time period – while putting up 21.3 points per game. The rivalry really accelerated when Bird beat out Johnson for Rookie of the Year.

Michael Jordan, 1984-85

It may be impossible to create a list of any top performances in the NBA without including Jordan. His rookie season paled in comparison to the rest of his career, but that’s more of a reflection of the heights of his success — because he still managed 28.2 points, 6.5 boards and 5.9 assists per game.

If there’s an underrated part of Jordan’s game, it’s his defensive impact, and he combined to record 3.2 steals and blocks per game in year one. This biggest impact was on his team, however. Prior to joining the Bulls, the team hadn’t made the postseason in four seasons and had reached the playoffs twice in the past nine campaigns. Not only did he lead the Bulls to the playoffs in his rookie year, but the team reached the postseason in every year Jordan remained on the roster until the close of the 1998 season – a run that included six NBA titles.

Shaquille O’Neal, 1992-93

Unlike Jordan, Shaq immediately did some of the best work of his career as a rookie. He stepped into the league to become one of the most intimidating defenders, swatting 3.5 shots per game. Shaq was also an efficient scorer, as he posted a well above average 56.2 effective field-goal percentage, which adjusts for two versus three-point attempts. It should come as no surprise that he landed Rookie of the Year honors.

Tim Duncan, 1997-98

Duncan began a streak of 13 consecutive seasons averaging a double-double in his rookie season, and supplemented that with 2.5 blocks. As has become routine on this list, he was the catalyst for a complete turnaround for the Spurs. Wembanyana will look to follow in his footsteps.

LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, 2003-04

James and Anthony are something comparable to Bird and Magic, though Anthony didn’t reach the same level of team success. The story, as we all know, is different for LeBron. At 19 years old, he won Rookie of the Year, but his first season doesn’t compare to the rarefied air he’s inhabited for the majority of his career.

Zion Williamson, 2019-2020

Zion was the most hyped rookie in recent years prior to Wemby, but his campaign was derailed by a knee injury. Unfortunately, that’s followed him throughout his career, though he has delivered on a per-game basis by averaging 25.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. He’s healthy early in the 2023 season, so hopefully we will have the chance to see his talent on display for something close to the full set of 82 games.

Dale Weber
Dale began working at RotoWire in 2017 writing MLB game wraps. He now covers primarily MLB, NFL and racing, but also has experience writing in a wide range of sports, including MMA, golf and soccer.