How does Wembanyama stack up against best rookies of all time?

Victor Wembanyama versus Chet Holmgren for Rookie of the Year was a fun discussion while it lasted and it should be a fun game within the game when the San Antonio Spurs play the Oklahoma City Thunder Wednesday night.

That’s not to take anything away from Holmgren, who has been an integral part of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s success with his ability to spread the floor on one end and protect the rim on the other.

Wembanyama is just a different kind of him. On Feb. 23, Wembanyama notched the rarest of rare games, producing a “5×5” stat line with 27 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists, five steals and five blocks in 31 minutes against the Lakers. It was the 22nd instance of such a game in NBA history and the first since 2019.

Averaging 21.3 points, 10.7 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.3 steals, 3.6 blocks and making one gobsmacking highlight after another, the Frenchman is having one of the greatest rookie seasons of all-time.

How certain can we be that this Wembanyama season deserves such lofty praise? By actually stacking it up against some of the best.

For the purpose of this exercise, only seasons post the NBA-ABA merger have been considered, when the league expanded to 22 teams and more apples-to-apples comparisons can be laid out for Wembanyama. Before this period, rookies were coming into the league averaging close to or more than 40 minutes per game and putting up numbers that would be virtually impossible in the modern NBA.

It is certainly worth acknowledging and respecting that Wilt Chamberlain became the first player to win both Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season (1959-60) after averaging 37.6 points and 27 rebounds in 46.4 minutes per game, but that also further illustrates the point. Oscar Robertson totaled 30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and 9.7 assists when winning 1960-61 Rookie of the Year.

While we’re here, much respect to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (known as Lew Alcindor when he entered the league), Elgin Baylor (who lifted the Lakers from last place to the NBA Finals), Elvin Hayes (who led the league in scoring his rookie season) and Wes Unseld (who became second and only other player not named Chamberlain to win ROY and MVP in the same season).

Moving on, here are the greatest rookie seasons from the past 48 years that rival or surpass what Wembanyama has accomplished this season:

LUKA DONCIC (2018-19)

Luka Doncic’s rookie season is a fascinating one to look back on.

Seeing the player he is now, the doubts that circled around him heading into the draft are even more laughable. Coming over to the NBA after playing professionally with Real Madrid, skeptics doubted his ability to transition and cited a lack of athleticism as reasons for concern.

Doncic went third in the 2018 NBA Draft behind Deandre Ayton to Phoenix and Marvin Bagley III to Sacramento, and was then traded by Atlanta to Dallas in exchange for Trae Young. Once he was officially a Maverick, the Slovenian went to work. He averaged 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.1 steals to run away with Rookie of the Year honours, but perhaps most impressively had Dallas legend Dirk Nowitzki in awe of how good he already was and was going to be.

Arguably the biggest legacy Doncic’s rookie season has left behind is the hardest slap possible in the faces of those who have any kind of bias against players coming from Europe. No one wants to make the same mistake Phoenix, Sacramento and Atlanta did.


Blake Griffin was one of those players coming into the league whose athleticism was a sight to behold. Arguably the most impressive dunker post-Vince Carter, his poster dunks are up there with anyone’s and his sky-high leaping ability ushered in one of the most exhilarating eras of basketball with Lob City.

In his rookie year, Griffin averaged 22.5 points, 12.1 rebounds and a subtly impressive 3.8 assists over 82 games. He showed he was more than a dunker, particularly with his playmaking ability.

LEBRON JAMES (2003-04)

The most-hyped rookie in NBA history and perhaps North American sports history didn’t blink in his NBA debut against, fittingly, the Sacramento Kings. He’s yet to flinch, 21 years later.

LeBron James announced himself with what became a signature Tomahawk slam in his first game and went on to average 20.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 1.6 steals over 79 games. He became just the third player in NBA history to average at least 20-5-5 as a rookie, after Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan. Tyreke Evans and Doncic are the only rookies to have done so since.

What’s truly comical is some of the comments his own teammates made about him ahead of his arrival that included this gem from Carlos Boozer: “We have better players than him at his position already on our team.”

Cleveland more than doubled its previous season’s win total from 17-65 to 35-47 with King James.

TIM DUNCAN (1997-98)

One of the wildest facts about Tim Duncan is that he won the Rookie of the Month award for every single month that season. In 82 games, Duncan averaged 21.1 points, 11.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.5 blocks while shooting 54.9 per cent from the field.

After some serious tanking efforts to put the Spurs in position to draft Duncan, the Gregg Popovich-led Spurs went from a 20-62 record to 56-26 and a West semis appearance.


Allen Iverson crossing over Michael Jordan is arguably one of the most iconic moments any NBA rookie has ever had.

In a season filled with those kinds of moments, Iverson averaged 23.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, 7.5 assists and 2.1 steals for an otherwise hapless Sixers team that managed just 22 wins. Team success followed in the years to come, but seeing someone succeed at the NBA level whose body would not stick out like a sore thumb amongst the general public inspired on a level that is hard to do justice with words.


A man never afraid of being too loud, Shaquille O’Neal’s first season in the NBA with the Orlando Magic was as outsized and outrageous as the man himself.

Averaging 23.4 points, 13.9 rebounds and 3.5 blocks while shooting 56.2 per cent from the field immediately made him one of the elite big men in the league. Orlando added 20 wins to its 21-win tally from the previous season, and that set the team on its way to an NBA Finals appearance just two years later.

Some may have forgotten just how fast O’Neal was up and down the floor, and when combined with his strength, made him the most dominant big man to play in the modern era.

No one had an answer for O’Neal, the “Hack-a-Shaq” proving to be a mark of respect and fear.


Although David Robinson was drafted in 1987, he didn’t play for two seasons as he was serving in the U.S. Military. Chiseled to physical perfection at 7-foot-1 and 235 pounds with speed to burn, Robinson was a nightmare matchup from his first night in the league, as he went on to average 24.3 points, 12.0 rebounds, 3.9 blocks and 1.7 steals in 82 games as a rookie.

San Antonio experienced one of the greatest regular season turnarounds in history, going from 21 wins the year before to 56 wins the next and falling in seven games to Portland in the West semis.


Considered by many the greatest player of all-time, Michael Jordan took the league by storm averaging 28.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 2.4 steals on his way to Rookie of the Year honours.

With Julius Erving a.k.a. Dr. J at the tail end of his career, Jordan’s athleticism provided a timely infusion of electrifying plays that captivated the minds of fans all over the globe. The Bulls went from winning 27 games to 38 and making the playoffs the next season, and that was about as small as Jordan’s success would be for the remainder of his career with Chicago.

Olajuwon’s rookie season would get even more love if not for having debuted in the same season as Jordan’s. The Dream joined the Houston Rockets and put up numbers big men can only hope to put up in the peak of their careers. Olajuwon averaged 20.6 points, 11.9 rebounds, 2.7 blocks and 1.2 steals while shooting 53.8 per cent from the field and playing all 82 games.

Houston improved to a record of 48-34 after going 29-53 the previous season as Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson formed a special Twin Towers duo, the latter averaged 22.1 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.0 steal and 2.0 blocks.

An incredible combination of grace, power and skill, Olajuwon is the second biggest reason the ‘84 draft class is regarded as one of the greatest of all-time.


You can’t talk about one without the other, and so they make this list together.

Larry Bird played all 82 games in 1979-80, averaging 21.3 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.7 steals on his way to Rookie of the Year honours.

Boston went from a 29-53 record the previous season to a 61-21 record along with a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals after the addition of Bird. That is an absurd level of impact and more than teased the impact Bird’s career was going to have on the league.

Although Magic Johnson didn’t win Rookie of the Year, he got something Bird would have gladly traded for: Finals MVP. Johnson teamed up with Abdul-Jabbar to lead the Los Angeles Lakers to a championship by following up regular-season numbers of 17.9 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 2.4 steals with playoff numbers of 18.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, 9.4 assists and 3.1 steals.

His 42-point, 15-rebound, seven-assist performance in the championship-clinching Game 6, playing centre in the absence of one of the greatest players of all-time in Abdul-Jabbar due to an ankle injury, is considered one of the greatest performances in NBA Finals history. He. Was. A. Rookie.

What Wembanyama doesn’t have on a good chunk of these players, and part of why Holmgren was in the ROY conversation for as long as he was, is team success. That’s not a reflection on him, though. The Spurs have been very committed to the tank, and the numbers show it. The Spurs are a plus-7.4 when Wembanyama is on the court and perhaps most significantly in indicating his defensive impact, allow 10.1 points fewer per-100 possessions when he’s on the court.

The likes of Jordan and James both had losing records in their respective rookie seasons, and it’s clear as day that in no way was reflective of their ability. By the same token, in assessing these rookie seasons within a vacuum, achieving the team successes that the likes of Johnson, Bird, Robinson and Duncan did while also establishing themselves as all-time greats does put them in a different category in this particular rookie conversation.

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