Who has recorded the most rebounds per game in an NBA rookie season? We take a look at the best of the best.
Victor Wembanyama took to the NBA like a duck to water during his 2023-24 debut, leaving one to wonder how many rookie-season records he might smash.
Which NBA players have made a statement in their very first year in the association? Who has made it known that they will not wait around to make their mark?
Let’s take a look at those who have put up the most rebounds per game as a rookie. Anyone familiar with NBA records will probably not be shocked to see who leads the standings.
And no, it isn’t Michael Jordan, who did everything but put up huge rebounding numbers during his dominant run with the Chicago Bulls.
Most Rebounds in an NBA Rookie Season
1. 27.0 – Wilt Chamberlain, Philadelphia Warriors (1959-60)
Chamberlain collected NBA records like others collect stamps, and this one was no different. When he arrived in the NBA, he was hardly a nobody and the former Harlem Globetrotter immediately becoming the league’s highest-paid player.
Playing for coach Neil Johnston and the Warriors, Chamberlain had 28 rebounds in his debut against the New York Knicks, before adding 40 in his third game against the Syracuse Nationals. In 72 games in his rookie season, Chamberlain ended with 1,941 rebounds. No one has even come close to matching it in league history, or likely ever will.
2. 19.6 – Bill Russell, Boston Celtics (1956-57)
Long before Larry Bird starred for the Celtics, Russell played in 12 All-Star Games and was a five-time MVP in Boston. And it all started in 1956-57 when he averaged 14.7 points and 19.6 rebounds.
Russell would go on to average more than 21.0 rebounds in each of the next 10 seasons on the way to finishing with the second-most rebounds (21,620) in a career behind only Chamberlain (23,924). No one has won more than Russell’s 11 NBA championships.
3. 19.0 – Walt Bellamy, Chicago Packers (1961-62)
He may have managed 441 fewer rebounds in seven more games, but take nothing away from Bellamy, whose rookie season was still very impressive. The man who would go on to be a four-time NBA All-Star was also a great scorer, averaging 31.6 points in his rookie season – the second most all time by a rookie behind Chamberlain. But he also amassed plenty of rebounds, with 1,500 overall.
Rebound-wise, Bellamy’s rookie season was the best year of his entire 14-year career, which included spells with the Knicks, Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks and New Orleans Jazz.
4. 18.2 – Wes Unseld, Baltimore Bullets (1968-69)
It was a promising start for Unseld when he pulled down 22 rebounds in his debut against the Pistons after he was the second overall pick of the 1968 NBA draft. Unseld made at least 20 rebounds in 28 of his 82 regular-season games, with his best outing coming against the Celtics in March 1969 when he totaled 32 in a home win.
His average of 18.2 boards helped him became the second player behind Chamberlain to win both the NBA Rookie of the Year award and Most Valuable Player in his first season.
5. 17.4 – Jerry Lucas, Cincinnati Royals (1963-64)
Unlike a lot of players on this list, Lucas’ rookie season was only the beginning. He averaged 17.4 rebounds for the Oscar Robertson-led Royals, before going on to average more than that in each of the next five years. He had 21.1 boards per game in the 1965-66 season with a total of 1,560 rebounds.
Lucas became a star in the NBA after winning a gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics, and was highly sought after before eventually signing with the Royals. The most impressive game of his debut year came in a victory on the road against the Philadelphia 76ers in February 1964 when he grabbed 40 rebounds.
6. 17.1 – Elvin Hayes, San Diego Rockets (1968-69)
It must have been frustrating for Hayes – the No.1 pick in the 1968 draft – to put up the numbers he did in his first season only to be overshadowed by Unseld. Still, Hayes sits fourth on this list, and is also fourth all time for career rebounds.
He averaged 17.1 rebounds for the Rockets, though did improve on that in the 1973-74 season for the Capital Bullets when he averaged 18.1. Hayes went on to play 1,303 games in the NBA, winning a championship in 1978 with the Washington Bullets, ironically playing alongside Unseld.
7. 16.3 – Maurice Stokes, Rochester Royals (1955-56)
Stokes enjoyed a brilliant start to what appeared to be a promising NBA career with 16.8 points and 16.3 rebounds per game as a rookie. Widely regarded as one of the NBA’s first Black superstars, Stokes would average 16.4 points, 17.3 boards and 5.3 assists in his first three seasons before a tragic end to his career in 1957-58.
Stokes was knocked down while driving to the hoop and hit his head on the court. He would continue the game and play another before suffering a seizure that left him permanently paralyzed.
8. 15.2 – Elmore Smith, Buffalo Braves (1971-72)
Smith averaged 15.2 rebounds in his rookie season, which was the most of his entire career and he averaged no more than 12.4 in a season after that. Smith did not have the glittering career of others in this list, but he initially lived up to the hype of being one of the top rebounders in college basketball before being selected by the Braves as the third overall pick of the 1971 NBA Draft.
He pulled down 25 rebounds in three separate games in the 1971-72 season against the Cincinnati Royals, Pistons and Portland Trail Blazers.
9. 15.0 – Dave Cowens, Boston Celtics (1970-71)
Some had initially doubted him, believing Cowens was too small to play center, but he immediately set about turning doubters into believers. He pulled down 28 rebounds against the Sixers in his debut NBA season and averaged 15.0 boards in the first of 10 years with the Celtics.
Cowens went on to win two championships and became an eight-time All-Star, before having one final season playing for Milwaukee Bucks in 1982-83. His subsequent coaching career included time with the Charlotte Hornets and Golden State Warriors as well as being assistant at the San Antonio Spurs.
10. 15.0 – Elgin Baylor, Minneapolis Lakers (1958-59)
Baylor shined from the start of his legendary career, averaging 24.9 points, 15.0 boards and 4.1 assists as a rookie. He would go on to earn All-Star, Rookie of the Year and All-NBA First Team honors.
He also averaged 24.2 points, 11.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists in the postseason, but the Lakers lost their opening series to Bob Pettit and the St. Louis Hawks in five games.
11. 14.7 – Willis Reed, New York Knicks (1964-65)
Reed, a Knicks legend, averaged 14.7 rebounds in his rookie season – the highest average of what was a storied career. The seven-time NBA All-Star was a model of consistency, never recording more than 23 rebounds in a game in his debut season but still ending it with an impressive average.
Reed went on to win two NBA championships, earning the NBA Finals MVP award on both occasions in 1970 and 1973.
12. 14.5 – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Milwaukee Bucks (1969-70)
He went on to make the second most appearances in NBA history (1,560) but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar didn’t hang around when it came to proving his credentials. He eventually won six NBA championships and was a 19-time All-Star.
But in his first season with the Bucks after being drafted No. 1 overall, he averaged 14.5 rebounds per game. He had a season-high 27 boards at Madison Square Garden in a loss to the Knicks.
Abdul-Jabbar went on to spend the majority of his career with the Los Angeles Lakers, and held the league’s all-time scoring record until being overtaken by LeBron James in February 2023.
13. 13.9 – Shaquille O’Neal, Orlando Magic (1992-93)
Opponents had to watch out for the ‘Shaq Attack’ from 1992 onwards as O’Neal burst onto the scene with the Magic. The only man inside the top 13 of these rankings to do so after 1972, O’Neal felt like a throwback when he averaged 13.9 rebounds in his rookie year.
Like many others on this list, it proved to be the highest average of his career even though he continued to be one of the best rebounders of his generation.
Of his 13.9 average in 1992-93, 9.6 were defensive rebounds, and the 15-time NBA All-Star and 14-time All-NBA team selection only failed to reach double figures for rebounds in 11 of his 81 games that season. His best showing was 25 rebounds against the Washington Bullets in April 1993.