The sports world is buzzing in the wake of the incredible and long-awaited NBA debut of Zion Williamson last night. The first overall pick of the New Orleans Pelicans showed out, dropping 22 points and grabbing seven rebounds in 18 minutes on the court. It was a tremendous return from injury for the young superstar, and a great NBA debut.
But in the history of the Association, there have been many incredible rookie debuts. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the very best.
Some superstars arrive on the scene with a bang. These guys would go on to bigger and better things in the NBA, but their starts were pretty prolific, too.
Back when the King was just a prince in waiting, he was set to debut for his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003. On Oct. 29, Lebron James first stepped onto an NBA court and delivered a foretaste of his incredible career.
That night, he recorded 25 points, nine assists, six rebounds, and four steals in the first game of what would be a Rookie of the Year winning season.
It wasn’t the greatest game of Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain’s career, but it sure was a great start. The Big Dipper debuted with an unbelievable 43 point performance, adding to it 28 rebounds. And God only knows how many blocks the big man had… literally because the Association hadn’t started keeping that statistic yet. What’s more disturbing is that 43 points and 28 rebounds wasn’t far off the averages Chamberlain would accumulate en route to a Rookie of the Year award: 37.6 points per game, and 27 rebounds. What a menace.
You don’t earn the nickname Mr. Triple Double by accident, and Oscar Robertson lived up to the billing from day one. “The Big O” grabbed 21 points, snagged 12 rebounds, and delivered 10 assists on Oct. 19, 1960, and like the other three men in this group, would go on to win Rookie of the Year as well. Robertson recorded four triple doubles in his first five games.
It’s not the greatest debut of all time, but Kevin Durant did just fine coming out of the University of Texas as the Number Two pick. He dropped 18 points in his first game with the Seattle SuperSonics, adding five rebounds and three steals as well. Top three picks are always marked men in their debuts, so it was still an impressive showing.
The Hype Trains
First impressions are important. And while these guys may not be household names or league superstars, they sure got started on the right foot.
The hype was oh-so-real for Brandon Jennings coming out of Oak Hill Academy in Virginia (by route of a season overseas). And when he arrived with the Milwaukee Bucks, he delivered on that hype. He drained 17 points in his first game, and came agonizingly close to a triple double, collecting nine assists and nine rebounds as well. He would go on to make the NBA All-Rookie team, but from there, things slid considerably. He would average just 14.1 points per game over a 555 game career.
Like Jennings, Michael Carter-Williams has assembled a perfectly respectable NBA career, averaging 10-plus points and over four rebounds and assists over 337 games. But he will likely never again recapture the glory of one of the greatest-ever NBA debuts.
MCW grabbed a tipped ball and sprinted down the court for a slam dunk against LeBron’s Miami Heat on his very first play, and he didn’t look back. He totalled 22 points and cemented the double double with 12 assists. But he flirted with the ultra-rare quadruple double, adding seven rebounds and a whopping nine steals as well. Imagine telling your grandkids that on the night you debuted, you were the best man on a court with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Some players are born superstars. Other players become superstars. For these players, the debut was inauspicious (to put it kindly), but they became league stars anyway.
It seems impossible now that Kobe Bryant wasn’t a first-overall pick who took the league by storm from day one. But the Black Mamba was actually a 13th overall pick, originally by the Hornets (the Lakers traded for him immediately), and he struggled to make an immediate impact. In fact, he was held scoreless in 6:22 in his very first game and mustered only one point in 3:16 the following matchup. He would reach double-digit point totals just twice in his first ten NBA games. Don’t worry, though: it worked out alright for the five-time NBA Champion and 18-time All-Star.
Did we include him just to prove we could spell his name? Possibly. But the Greek Freak was a slow learner in the NBA and grabbed just one point in his debut. Still a better start than Kobe, but that’s a pretty low bar. And if there’s one thing we know about Giannis Antetokounmpo, the man can jump.
Luka Dončic may be taking the world by storm this season, but he hardly did that right out of the gate. The NBA often has a suspicion — fair or unfair — of European players with high draft capital, and Luka did not dispell those in his first night on the court for the Dallas Mavericks. The Ljubljana, Slovenia native (we’ll let you figure out how to pronounce that) struggled in his debut, scoring just ten points despite playing almost 32 minutes. He went 5/16 from the field including 0/5 from beyond the arc, and he had four turnovers and three fouls as well. As they say in Slovenia: ni odličen začetek (plug it into google translate, kids, and thank us later).