The other day I was doing some research for a future piece on the greatest rookie seasons of all time and I ended up getting sidetracked by Walt Bellamy. Walt Bellamy? Yes, Walt Bellamy. You see, Bellamy had his finest season in the NBA as a rookie, a feat that I thought had to be highly unusual given the Hall of Famer’s 14-year, 1043-game career. And just like that, I had my next blog post: How many players with careers of significant length peaked in their rookie season?
Before I could go about answering this question I had two define two terms:
- What is a career of significant length? Lots of players who played just a handful of seasons peaked in their rookie year, so I decided to restrict my attention to players who debuted in the 1951-52 season or later (when minutes played were first recorded) and played in at least 850 games.
- How do you determine a player’s peak season? There’s no one right answer, of course, but I decided a player’s peak season should take into account both his overall production and efficiency. I settled on the following formula:
(win shares) + (win shares above average)
The score of a league average player using the formula above will be equal to his win shares.
Now that I had a player pool and a definition for seasonal value, I could move on to the good stuff. First, here’s a table summarizing the number of players who achieved their peak score in a particular season:
A few observations:
- Only five of these players peaked in their rookie season (more on them below).
- More players peaked in their fifth and sixth seasons than any other season.
- A majority of these players (55.69 percent) had achieved their peak by the end of their sixth season.
- The one player who peaked in his 13th season was Derek Fisher. Fisher had a career-high offensive rating (points produced per 100 possessions) while playing the third-most minutes of his career.
Now let’s take a closer look at the player who peaked in their rookie season, going in chronological order:
Bellamy had what was probably one of the three greatest rookie seasons in NBA history, finishing second in the league to Wilt Chamberlain in both win shares and win shares per 48 minutes.
Although he played 14 years in the league, Bellamy’s first four seasons were easily his best. Just five players — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, David Robinson, and Michael Jordan — had a higher score through the first four years of their career. Not coincidentally, those were the only seasons Bellamy was selected to play in the NBA All-Star Game.
Monroe — a flashy, high-scoring guard drafted out of Winston-Salem State — started his career off with a bang, putting up his two best seasons as a pro in his first two years. In that time he received his only major postseason honors: Rookie of the Year and All-Rookie First Team in 1967-68 and All-NBA First Team in 1968-69.
Although he never again reached the level he attained in those first two seasons, Monroe was a solid, sometimes spectacular, player for most of his NBA career. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1990.
Unseld and Wilt Chamberlain are the only rookies to win the MVP award, although to be honest Unseld’s selection was a bit of a head-scratcher.*
* Willis Reed — who led the league in both win shares and win shares per 48 minutes — would have been a better selection.
As you can see, the scores in Unseld’s first two seasons are incredibly close, but given that he won the MVP award and earned his only All-NBA selection in his rookie campaign I think the result makes sense.
By the way, Unseld and Earl Monroe were teammates on the Baltimore Bullets from 1968-69 to November 10, 1971, at which point Monroe was dealt to the New York Knicks. And like Monroe and Walt Bellamy, Unseld was eventually elected to the Hall of Fame.
Davis had an outstanding rookie season, winning Rookie of the Year and being named All-NBA Second Team. Davis’ first three seasons were the best of his career, and although he would go on to receive three more All-Star selections after that he was never again the same player. Part of that is due to the back problems that plagued him later his career, but drug problems that came to light in 1985 no doubt played a big role in his decline.
Smith was a bruising power forward with a singular talent: rebounding, especially on the offensive boards. As a rookie, Smith led the NBA in both offensive rebound percentage and total rebound percentage and was named All-Rookie First Team. Over the course of his career, Smith finished in the top 10 in offensive rebounds eight times — only six players have more top 10 appearances — and he currently has the third-highest career offensive rebound percentage in NBA history.*
* Offensive rebounds have been recorded since the 1973-74 season.
Unlike the other players on this list, Smith was never selected to play in an All-Star Game or named All-NBA, but over the course of his career he was a solid if unspectacular player.