Ja Morant wowed fans as a rookie and gave Memphis Grizzlies supporters hope for the future. It’s often said that especially point guards don’t contribute that much to victories in their first season. Morant proved to be an exception. But he is also not the first!
In the end, it just wasn’t enough. Even though his decimated team played well and Ja Morant even dropped a career high 35 points, the Memphis Grizzlies could not overcome Damian Lilliard and the Portland Trail Blazers, losing 126-122 and with it the final playoffs ticket for the 2020 NBA bubble. Morant and the Grizzlies just missed out on crowning their spectacular season. The team was in great position to reach the playoffs before the Covid-19 pandemic hit and postponed the season. But things felt apart in the bubble despite Morant continuing his strong rookie campaign. His first year was one of the best rookie seasons for a point guard in NBA history. Nobody expected anything from the Grizzlies this season because rookie point guards rarely lead their teams to wins. But Morant did just that. He not only collected 17.8 points and 7.3 assists per game but also helped Memphis to a higher winning percentage this season at 46.6 percent than last years 40.2 percent in year one without long-time franchise players Marc Gasol and Mike Conley.
Such a debut for a point guard is rare, which leads to the question: Where does Morant’s season stack up in NBA history. Here is a look at the best rookie seasons for playmakers. But first a couple of rules:
- Rule #1: Statistics are of course important but not the only factor, especially as a point guard. A real playmaker defines himself less on his own points and more on the victories he helped the team collect.
- Rule #2: Offense will be weighed a little bit more than defense since most point guards don’t necessarily start here at a high level. And the influence of a 1.85 meter defender in most cases is rather limited.
- Rule #3: The game is constantly changing, making cross-generational comparisons a little more complex. No player here will be disadvantaged, because they didn’t shoot the three-pointer well if it wasn’t necessary in his era. We are setting the cut-off line at the start of the modern era with the introduction of the three-point line in 1979. That means we aren’t including Oscar Robertson’s amazing rookie season in which The Big O collected 30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and 9.7 assists in a league that looked nothing like today’s NBA.
- Rule #4: Did the player actually play the point guard position as a rookie? Luka Doncic or LeBron James could correctly be called point guards – or lead playmakers – in today’s game. But neither played those roles as rookies and therefore are not included here. But there is one major case which must be mentioned.
- Important term: Value over Replacement Player (VORP) – shows how much a player accomplished over the whole season, in relation to an averaged minimum salary player (VORP: -2,0)
Outlier: Magic Johnson (1979–80, Los Angeles Lakers)
18.0 Points, 7.7 Rebounds, 7.3 Assists, 2.4 Steals; 53.4% eFG, 20.6 PER, 10.5 Win Shares, 4.8 VORP
Magic is considered by most NBA fans as the best point guard of all time. His rookie season more than showed the greatness to come. Johnson is the only NBA player in history to win the title and the Finals MVP award in his first season in the league. In the sixth game of the 1980 Finals, Magic filled in for the injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and opened the game as center – switching between center and point guard throughout the game. His 42 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists is one of the best single game performances in the league’s history. And there are plenty of reasons to put Johnson atop this list. But there is one problem. It took about four years before Magic really became a point guard with the Lakers. He took control of the team earlier than that. But in year one, Magic didn’t even lead the team in assists – that honor went to Norm Nixon, who averaged 39.3 minutes as a point guard with Johnson serving as shooting guard. The Lakers traded Nixon in 1983 for Byron and Swen Nater to finally officially put the ball in Magic’s hands. As hard as it is, the three-time MVP’s rookie season cannot be considered.
So, here is the Top Five!
13.6 Points, 10.6 Assists, 4.8 Rebounds, 2.5 Steals; 44.8 eFG%, 15.6 PER, 7.6 Win Shares, 3.9 VORP
Mama, there goes that man! After four years at St. John’s, Jackson came into the NBA very mature at 22 years of age and may have come up with his best season in the NBA – which also resulted in him winning the Rookie of the Year award. His 10.6 assists per game remain a rookie record to this day and later in his career he was the reason for a rule change. Since Jackson liked to go into the post and dribble for 15 seconds with his back to the basket until an assist opportunity presented itself, the NBA adopted the “Mark Jackson Rule”. That prohibited a player from dribbling the ball for more than 5 seconds with his back to the basket. That makes it hard to imagine his slow style in today’s game. But it worked during his era as he teamed up with Patrick Ewing to lead the Knicks to 14 more wins than in the previous season and got New York back into the playoffs after a three-year absence. The Knicks lost to the Boston Celtics but Jackson played well with 14.3 points and 9.8 assists. Jackson was selected 18th in the draft – being the last Rookie of the Year not picked in the Lottery until Malcolm Brodgon in 2017 – which he reasoned as following: “The scouts and the critics rated basketball players like they rated ice skaters – the pretty ones got the 10s. They weren’t looking at the job I was doing and how I was doing it. I wasn’t flashy, I was just getting it done.”
4th Place: Derrick Rose (2008-09, Chicago Bulls)
16.8 Points, 3.9 Rebounds, 6.3 Assists; 48.2% eFG, 16 PER, 4.9 Win Shares, 1.2 VORP
There have been explosive point guards in the past, including the likes of Steve Francis or Allen Iverson, but Rose took this job description to another level – collecting more posters in his rookie season than an over-motivated teenager. But his high placing on this list was more because of his impact on his new team. As a hometown kid, Rose gave the starving Bulls franchise a new life. He was the new role model that Chicago had been looking for since the departure of Michael Jordan. Rose played with great passion and energy at both ends of the court and carried the team as a 20-year-old. He was not always on the floor at the end of close games but he played a major role in Chicago collecting eight more victories than the previous season and reaching the playoffs. Rose stepped up his game even more in the post-season, pushing the reigning champions Boston Celtics to seven games in the first round of the playoffs and evening the record for points by a rookie in their first playoffs game with 36 points to go with 11 assists – a mark he shared with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar until Luka Doncic tallied it with 42 points in 2020. Rose averaged 20 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists – showing a preview of the superstar he would become as two years later he became the youngest player in NBA history to win the MVP award. Rose’s lengthy injury history afterwards is well-known but his first three seasons definitely go round for an interesting Hall of Fame case.
17.0 Points, 2.9 Rebounds, 7.8 Assists, 2.1 Steals; 43.2% eFG, 14.5 PER, 2.3 Win Shares, 0.7 VORP
But Rose was not the best point guard from Chicago in general or as a rookie. Both of those honors go to “Zeke”, who made it to the All-Star Game as a rookie and helped turn the Pistons into a winning franchise. Thomas arrived in Detroit in 1981 to a team that was the second-worst in the NBA. From Day One, Thomas was the best player on the team and the clear leader. Despite being just 1.85 meters, he helped the Pistons increase their win total by 18 games and just missed the playoffs. Thomas’ game was not necessarily analytics-friendly, especially his scoring. He didn’t really have a good shot from the outside but relied instead on a number of midrange shots and tough finishes around the basket, where his size really didn’t help him. That explains his relatively low effective shooting percentage, but it didn’t tell the whole truth. Thomas took many of his shots in the fourth quarter against much more pressure from the defense. Few point guards possessed the trait to involve his teammates for the first three quarters and then to take over things himself in the final 10 minutes. He could have easily scored more and taken more easy shots. But Thomas never lost focus on the big picture and knew he had to carry his team. And that showed often enough. In his NBA debut, Thomas collected 31 points and 11 assists and had three more games with more than 30 points. But he also influenced the game a lot with just 12 or 13 points because of his excellent defense. In his 13-year career, he perfectly personified the classical point guard and helped the Pistons to two NBA titles.
11.7 Points, 5,4 Rebounds, 7.7 Assists, 1.9 Steals; 42.6% eFG, 15.1 PER, 3.7 Win Shares, 2.0 VORP
There are a few players who can dominate the game from the point guard spot without really being a scorer. Kidd was an extreme example of this over his long career. When he entered the league, his jumper was so bad that his nickname was “Ason” because he didn’t have a “J”. And still he had a huge impact on the Mavericks’ play. Kidd could not score efficiently but he could do everything else. He was very fast at the beginning of his career and also had good length and good defensive instincts. He could read the game better and faster than any player before or after him and he turned role players into multi-millionaires during his Hall of Fame career. In 1994, he came to a Mavs team, which had two strong talents in Jamal Mashburn and Jim Jackson but had only produced 13 wins the previous season as one of the worst teams in the league. But that changed with the “New Kidd in Town” – as the point guard was marketed. With their new floor general, Dallas won 23 more games – making Kidd’s impact the biggest of any rookie point guard in history. The offensive improvement was especially impressive as the Mavericks scored seven points more per 100 possessions with Kidd on board. Kidd ended up splitting the Rookie of the Year award with Grant Hill. It was the start of a Hall of Fame career, which had plenty of curves and highs and lows. He needed to wait until he was 38 years old to finally win a title with the Mavericks in 2011. At that point, two-thirds of his attempts were three-pointers. So, he didn’t remain “Ason”.
161 Points, 5.1 Rebounds, 7.8 Assists, 2.2 Steals; 45.6% eFG, 22.1 PER, 10.4 Win Shares, 5.1 VORP
There is a reason you will be called “Point God”. Paul’s rookie season is the only one from an advanced metrics aspect, which comes close to the campaign that Magic Johnson put together in his debut. And to a certain degree he took the old formula of Isiah Thomas. CP3 as a rookie was not a good shooter (28.2 3P%) but he still had to be respected. And that opened up everything else. Just like Thomas, Paul was breathtakingly fast in his first couple of years as well as really athletic – as strange as it may sound today, even with poster dunks (greetings to Dwight Howard). Scoring has never been the first choice for Paul, who is a true floor general. As a rookie he dished out the fifth-most assists in the league and increased the Hornets’ offensive rating four points. More importantly, he helped the second-worst team of the league with 18 wins jump to 38 victories and even reach the post-season in year one. And looking back at the Hornets’ roster, other than David West, even 38 wins were more than impressive. Paul’s rookie season was also amazing from an analytical standpoint: He ranked 20th in the league in Player Efficiency Rating, 17th in Win Shares, 14th in Plus-Minus and 16th in Value over Replacement – all that from a position that usually takes a while to learn. Paul took the NBA by storm and was deservedly named Rookie of the Year, setting the gold standard for rookie point guards not named Magic Johnson.