No matter how experienced a player is coming into the league, it is really difficult to be a productive NBA player as a rookie.
The level of skill, rigor of the schedule, and advanced scouting are all major adjustments for players entering the league. And it can take years for even elite prospects to fully find their footing.
But there are rare players who defy the odds and play elite basketball right from the start. And even for some players who have ups and downs as rookies, the upside flashes can be indicative of what is to come.
Here, we celebrate the best scoring outbursts by NBA rookies. As you’ll see, several (but not all) of the players who made their mark right away as rookies ended up as Hall of Famers. (Please note that the NBA does not include George Mikan as a rookie, since he played in the NBL before playing the NBA).
This might be a rare NBA list that doesn’t include the likes of Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Larry Bird or Shaquille O’Neal, but we start with a man synonymous with records.
Most Points in Game by a Rookie
T1.) Wilt Chamberlain, 58 Points in 1960
If there is a scoring record of any kind, chances are it belongs to Wilt Chamberlain. On Feb. 21, 1960, Chamberlain scored 58 points on 47 shots to help the Philadelphia Warriors beat the New York Knicks 129-122. He added 24 rebounds to his monstrous stat total. His 58 points tied the record for most points by a rookie in a single game, which was previously done by…
T1.) Wilt Chamberlain, 58 Points in 1960
Wilt Chamberlain, who accomplished the feat almost a month earlier on Jan. 25. Wilt was more efficient in this game, scoring 58 points on 41 shots. And he was credited with a jaw-dropping 42 rebounds as well. Wilt’s stats sometimes seem like a joke some scorekeepers put in the books in the ‘60s to see if anyone was paying attention.
3.) Rick Barry, 57 Points in 1965
The four top scoring games by rookies were by Hall of Famers and the highest scoring game in the non-Wilt division goes to Hall of Famer and 12-time All Star Rick Barry.
Barry had an advanced game for his era and it showed in his 57-point effort as a rookie, as he got to the line 22 times and only missed once. That proved not to be a fluke, either, as Barry led the league in free throw percentage seven times and has the fourth-highest free throw percentage of qualifying players in NBA history. Unfortunately for Barry, his 57 points weren’t enough for the victory, as the New York Knicks defeated his San Francisco Warriors 141-137.
4.) Earl Monroe, 56 Points in 1968
Three years after Barry’s 57, ‘The Pearl’ came within two points of knocking him out of third spot and tying Chamberlain.
Earl Monroe was drafted second overall in 1967, and proved right away he was a good investment for the Baltimore Bullets as he averaged 24.3 points and won Rookie of the Year. His best effort came on Feb. 13 when he went toe-to-toe with two Los Angeles Lakers legends in Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. The two Lakers combined for 79 points and the 119-116 win, but Monroe was the story of the game, scoring almost half of his team’s points. He’d go on to be a Hall of Famer and 1973 champion with the New York Knicks, still the last title for the franchise.
5.) Brandon Jennings, 55 Points in 2009
The lone player on this list to not make the Hall of Fame, Jennings could nevertheless fill it up as a rookie, as he proved in his 55-point explosion against the Golden State Warriors on Nov. 14.
Jennings took only eight free throws in the game, making six. But he went 7-of-8 on 3-pointers and 21-of-34 from the field. And he even chipped in five rebounds and five assists. The Milwaukee Bucks needed every one of those points too as they held on for a 129-125 win.
The point guard would go on to be a good scoring guard with the Bucks for four seasons before going to the Detroit Pistons. But it wouldn’t have been crazy to think Jennings was on an even more prestigious path after watching him against the Warriors. And, as it turns out, a small rookie point guard from that game ended up as a surefire Hall of Fame caliber player. It just happened to be a reserve for the Warriors who scored 14 points that night: Stephen Curry.
Most Points by a Rookie in a Playoff Game
1.) Wilt Chamberlain, 53 Points in 1960
Surprise, surprise. Chamberlain’s torrid scoring pace continued in the playoffs and culminated in a 53-point elimination game to lead the Warriors past the Syracuse Nationals in the opening round with a Game 3 132-112 victory. He left some points on the table too, going 5-of-16 at the free throw line.
2.) Wilt Chamberlain, 50 Points in 1960
Chamberlain scored 53 points in an elimination victory and another 50 in a game to stave off elimination just a week later. His 50-point, 35-rebound effort gave the Warriors a 128-107 win over the Celtics, keeping the series alive. Unfortunately for Chamberlain, the Celtics were able to close out the series the next game with a 119-117 win in which Wilt scored “only” 26 points.
3.) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 46 Points in 1970
The scary thing about Abdul-Jabbar was, after one of the best rookie regular NBA season games of all time, he only got better in the playoffs, averaging 35.2 points per game in the playoffs as a rookie before the Bucks lost to the eventual champion Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The magnum opus of his playoff run came in a closeout Game 5 115-106 win against the Philadelphia 76ers, when Abdul-Jabbar poured in 46 points on just 18 field goal attempts. No one else in the game on either team even had 30.
That effort highlighted one of the most dominant first seasons of all time, in both the regular season and playoffs. And there hasn’t been a rookie who has matched Abdul-Jabbar’s single-game output in the 50+ years since.
T4.) Magic Johnson, 42 Points in 1980
A decade later, it was Abdul-Jabbar’s teammate filling in for him who put up a 42-point game of his own.
Johnson, playing center for the injured Abdul-Jabbar, had one of the most memorable games in NBA Finals history, scoring 42 points to help the Lakers win Game 6 123-107 to clinch the NBA title against the Sixers. Johnson added 15 rebounds and seven assists, and was the undisputed best player on the floor in a showdown with Julius Erving.
He would go on to be one of the best point guards of all time, but one of Johnson’s best games was at center. Not too many point guards can make that claim.
T4. Slick Leonard, 42 Points in 1957
The pride of Terre Haute, Indiana, Slick Leonard only scored 11 points per game as a rookie in 1956-57. But he had his best game of the season in the playoffs, scoring 42 points to help the St. Louis Hawks beat the Minneapolis Lakers 143-135 and take the opening series of the playoffs.
T4. Wilt Chamberlain, 42 Points in 1960
For any other player, 42 points in a playoff game would be amazing. For Chamberlain, it wasn’t even his highest scoring game of the series.
Most Points by a Rookie in a Finals Game
1.) Magic Johnson, 42 points in 1980
We’ve already touched on Johnson’s incredible closeout game in the 1980 Finals. And his 42 points are five more than any other rookie in a Finals game. He remains the only player in NBA history to win NBA Finals MVP as a rookie.
T2.) Tom Heinsohn, 37 Points in 1957
Long before he was a Celtics broadcaster, Heinsohn was a Hall of Fame player and eight-time champion for the franchise. After winning rookie of the year, his 37-point Game 7 helped the Celtics edge the Hawks 125-123 for the first of those titles.
T2.) Joe Fulks, 37 Points in 1947
Before the BAA merged with the NBL to form the NBA in 1949, “Jumpin” Joe Fulks had 37 Points in Game 1 of the 1947 BAA Finals to help the Philadelphia Warriors knock off the Chicago Stags 84-71.
4.) Elgin Baylor, 34 Points in 1959
Baylor was a 10-time all-NBA player who led the playoffs in points per game four separate seasons. His first taste of the Finals was against a dominant Celtics team that would sweep Baylor’s Lakers in his first year. But Baylor showed the lights weren’t too bright for him right away, as had 34 points in Game 1, a 118-115 Celtics victory.
5.) Joe Fulks, 34 Points in 1947
As we all expected, the name on this list twice is Joe Fulks. He had 34 points in a closeout Game 5 to give the Warriors the championship.