Greatest Rookies of All Time

November 29, 2018 by Grant Suneson

Source: Otto Greule / Allsport / Getty Images
Playing professional sports is a difficult job, and some great players take years to get settled in and reach their potential. Others, however, become instantly successful.

Each season, the top rookies in each league are honored. And every so often, one of these rookies puts together an incredible season that ranks among the best in pro sports — regardless of experience.

A terrific rookie season does not always translate to a great career. All-time greats like Eric Dickerson and Michael Jordan were instant superstars, winning their league’s rookie of the year award on their way to hall of fame careers.

Other players, like Dwight Gooden, were dominant early in their careers, but couldn’t maintain their high level of play. Of course, that does not diminish how impressive it is that these players could be so dominant against the greatest athletes in the world at a young age — in Gooden’s case age 19.

24/7 Wall St. reviewed historical statistics of the four major American sports leagues — the NFL, NHL, MLB, and NBA — on the Sports Reference family of sites to determine the greatest rookies of all time.

Click here to see the greatest rookies of all time.
Click here to see our methodology.

Source: Rick Stewart / Getty Images

24. Michael Jordan
> League: NBA
> Rookie season: 1984-85
> Team: Chicago Bulls
> Statistics: 28.2 points per game, 51.5% shooting

Michael Jordan’s legendary NBA career got off to a hot start during the 1984-1985 season. MJ played in all 82 Chicago Bulls games, averaging 28.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 5.9 assists per game. Jordan hit 51.5% of his shots that season, one of the better shooting seasons of his career. That season, Jordan won the NBA Rookie of the Year award — the first of many trophies he would accumulate in his career.

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Source: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images

23. Aaron Judge
> League: MLB
> Rookie season: 2017
> Team: New York Yankees
> Statistics: 52 home runs, 127 walks, 128 runs

No rookie has ever hit more home runs than New York Yankees slugger Aaron Judge. The 6-foot-7 outfielder used his powerful frame to hit 52 home runs in 2017. While his long balls got most of the attention in his breakout year, his 127 walks led the American League that season.

Source: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images

22. Dak Prescott
> League: NFL
> Rookie season: 2016
> Team: Dallas Cowboys
> Statistics: 3,667 pass yards, 23 touchdowns, 104.9 passer rating

When he stepped in for the injured Tony Romo in 2016, fourth round pick Dak Prescott proved to be a more than suitable replacement quarterback. Prescott led the Dallas Cowboys to a 13-3 record that year, throwing for 23 touchdowns and just four interceptions, while posting a 104.9 passer rating — the best ever for a first-year starting QB. Unfortunately for Cowboys fans, Prescott has not been able to match that success in his two subsequent seasons.

Source: Courtesy of Baseball Digest / Wikimedia Commons

21. Ted Williams
> League: MLB
> Rookie season: 1939
> Team: Boston Red Sox
> Statistics: .327 average, 31 home runs, 145 RBI

There was no AL Rookie of the Year award yet in 1939. If there was one, Ted Williams certainly would have won it. In his first season with the Red Sox, Williams hit .327 with 31 home runs and an MLB-leading 145 RBIs. The 20-year-old outfielder finished fourth in the MVP voting even though he wasn’t named an All-Star. Williams would go on to make the All-Star team in 17 of the next 18 seasons he played and be named a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

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Source: Greg Trott / Getty Images

20. Patrick Willis
> League: NFL
> Rookie season: 2007
> Team: San Francisco 49ers
> Statistics: 174 tackles, 4 sacks, All-Pro

San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis was a tackling machine. In his rookie season, he led the NFL with 174 combined tackles and 135 solo tackles and was an All-Pro selection. Willis was arguably the best linebacker in the NFL for years until he retired somewhat abruptly in 2015 at age 30. He said he no longer had the passion to play, as injuries took their toll on his body.

Source: Doug Pensinger / Allsport / Getty Images

19. Jevon Kearse
> League: NFL
> Rookie season: 1999
> Team: Tennessee Titans
> Statistics: 14.5 sacks, 15 tackles for loss

Jevon Kearse was known as “The Freak” for his astonishing combination of size and athleticism. After being selected in the first round of the 1999 NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans, Kearse showed off his abilities, recording a rookie record 14.5 sacks as well as 15 tackles for loss. Kearse played well in his first three seasons, but his production waned afterward and he missed large parts of seasons due to injury.

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Source: Mitchell Layton / Getty Images

18. Alexander Ovechkin
> League: NHL
> Rookie season: 2005-06
> Team: Washington Capitals
> Statistics: 52 goals, 54 assists

Alex Ovechkin edged out his rival Sidney Crosby to become the 2005-2006 Calder Memorial Trophy winner. Leading all NHL rookies with 106 points that season — 52 goals and 54 assists — Ovi had the fourth highest point total of any rookie in NHL history for the Washington Capitals.

Source: Otto Greule Jr / Allsport / Getty Images

17. Ronnie Lott
> League: NFL
> Rookie season: 1981
> Team: San Francisco 49ers
> Statistics: 89 tackles, 4 touchdowns, All-Pro

Ronnie Lott’s 1981 rookie season was one of the best years of his Hall of Fame career. Lott had 89 tackles and picked off seven passes, returning three of them for touchdowns — leading the NFL that year. Lott continued his top-notch play in the postseason, intercepting two more passes and taking one to the house. Lott helped the San Francisco 49ers win the Super Bowl and was named first team All-Pro. He would go on to win three more championships and make five more All-Pro teams.

Source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

16. Fred Lynn
> League: MLB
> Rookie season: 1975
> Team: Boston Red Sox
> Statistics: .331 average, 47 doubles, Gold Glove

In 1975, Fred Lynn became the first player in MLB history to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season. The Red Sox slugger hit .331 and led the Majors with 47 doubles and a slugging percentage of .566. He also excelled on defense, winning the Gold Glove for his play in centerfield. Lynn would make eight more All-Star teams and win three additional Gold Gloves in his 17-season career.

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Source: Montreal Gazette / Wikimedia Commons

15. Tiny Thompson
> League: NHL
> Rookie season: 1928-29
> Team: Boston Bruins
> Statistics: 1.15 goals against average, 12 shutouts

Hall of Fame goaltender Cecil “Tiny” Thompson had a dream start to his career. During the 1928-1929 season, he led the NHL in wins with 26. Thompson’s top-notch goalkeeping helped the Boston Bruins win the Stanley Cup that year. His 1.15 goals against average still stands as the lowest GAA of any rookie netminder.

Source: Sport Magazine Archives / Wikimedia Commons

14. Oscar Robertson
> League: NBA
> Rookie season: 1960-61
> Team: Cincinnati Royals
> Statistics: 30.5 points per game, 10.1 rebounds per game

Oscar Robertson, the man who became known as “Mr. Triple Double,” proved early on he could fill up a stat sheet. Robertson averaged 30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, and a league-leading 9.7 assists his rookie year. The “Big O” redefined what a point guard could do on the court, and he dominated the game for 14 years, winning just about every award possible and making the Hall of Fame.

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Source: Jed Jacobsohn / Getty Images

13. Albert Pujols
> League: MLB
> Rookie season: 2001
> Team: St. Louis Cardinals
> Statistics: .329 average, 37 home runs, 130 RBI

Albert Pujols began his Hall of Fame-caliber career with a bang in 2001. The St. Louis Cardinals first baseman burst onto the scene hitting .329 with 37 home runs and 130 RBIs. That would be the first of his 10 consecutive seasons batting at least .312 with 30 home runs and 100 RBIs.

Source: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

12. Peter Stastny
> League: NHL
> Rookie season: 1980-81
> Team: Quebec Nordiques
> Statistics: 39 goals, 70 assists

If not for Wayne Gretzky, Peter Stastny’s name would be all over the rookie record books. Stastny tallied 109 points his rookie year, then the second highest total for a first-year player behind only Gretzky’s 137-point debut the previous season. Stastny was especially dangerous on the power play, scoring 11 goals and 21 assists with a man advantage. Stastny would go on to have six more 100-point seasons and make the Hall of Fame.

Source: Scott Halleran / Getty Images

11. Dwight Gooden
> League: MLB
> Rookie season: 1984
> Team: New York Mets
> Statistics: 2.60 ERA, 276 Strikeouts, 17-9 record

Dwight Gooden was an instant star when he broke into the Major Leagues with the New York Mets in 1984. He shattered the rookie strikeout record with 276 punchouts. Gooden seemed poised to have one of the greatest pitching careers ever, making four All-Star teams in his first five seasons as well as winning a Cy Young and a World Series. But his pitching suffered as he battled injuries and personal issues such as substance abuse. He pitched until 2000, but his best years all came during the 1980s.

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Source: Adam Bettcher / Getty Images

10. Randy Moss
> League: NFL
> Rookie season: 1998
> Team: Minnesota Vikings
> Statistics: 1,313 receiving yards, 17 touchdowns

When Randy Moss entered the NFL in 1998, he was bold, brash, and absolutely unguardable, largely due to his 6-foot-4 frame. Moss teamed up with quarterback Randall Cunningham to terrorize NFL defenses. Moss recorded an NFL-leading 17 touchdowns and 1,313 receiving yards his first season, earning the first All-Pro spot of his Hall of Fame career.

Source: National Basketball Association / Wikimedia Commons

9. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
> League: NBA
> Rookie season: 1969-70
> Team: Milwaukee Bucks
> Statistics: 28.8 points per game, 14.5 rebounds per game

Fresh off three straight NCAA Championships at UCLA, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar continued his winning ways in the pros. Averaging 28.8 points and 14.5 rebounds per game, Abdul-Jabbar made the first of his 19 All-Star games his rookie year. He won six MVPs, six championships, and is still the NBA’s all-time leader in points scored.

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Source: Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images

8. Fernando Valenzuela
> League: MLB
> Rookie season: 1981
> Team: Los Angeles Dodgers
> Statistics: 2.48 ERA, 180 strikeouts, Silver Slugger

At age 20, Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela dominated much more seasoned opponents, notching a league-leading eight complete game shutouts in the 1981 season. The Mexican-born Valenzuela became a phenomenon, helping draw Latino fans to the ballpark. The Dodgers rode “Fernandomania” all the way to the 1981 World Series title. For his efforts, Valenzuela won the NL Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards — the first pitcher to earn both trophies in the same season. Valenzuela had a 17-season MLB career but faded with age, never making an All-Star team past 1986.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

7. Walt Bellamy
> League: NBA
> Rookie season: 1961-62
> Team: Chicago Packers
> Statistics: 31.6 points per game, 19 rebounds per game

Walt Bellamy’s first NBA season was by far his best. The first overall pick in the 1961 draft, Bellamy averaged 31.6 points and 19 rebounds per game that season. His statistics never reached those levels again, though he was a consistently productive player, making four All-Star teams and earning a spot in the Hall of Fame.

Source: Jeff Vinnick / Getty Images / NHLI

6. Teemu Selanne
> League: NHL
> Rookie season: 1992-93
> Team: Winnipeg Jets
> Statistics: 76 goals, 56 assists, All-Star

The best season of Teemu Selanne’s Hall of Fame career was his very first. The Finnish winger led the NHL in goals his rookie year with 76. He also tallied 56 assists for a total of 132 points — the closest anyone has ever come to breaking Wayne Gretzky’s rookie record of 137 points. Though he never reached that point total again, he led the NHL in scoring in two more seasons and played until age 43.

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

5. Eric Dickerson
> League: NFL
> Rookie season: 1983
> Team: Los Angeles Rams
> Statistics: 1,808 rush yards, 18 touchdowns

After being drafted second overall by the Los Angeles Rams, Eric Dickerson immediately became the top running back in the NFL. He piled up 1,808 rushing yards and 18 rush touchdowns in his first season — both rookie records that no other backs have ever come close to. The next season, Dickerson set the NFL record for rushing yards in one season, at 2,105 — a record that also stands to this day.

Source: Mike Powell / Allsport / Getty Images

4. Lawrence Taylor
> League: NFL
> Rookie season: 1981
> Team: New York Giants
> Statistics: 9.5 sacks, All-Pro, Defensive Player of the Year

In 1981, Lawrence Taylor became the only player in NFL history to win Defensive Player of the Year and Defensive Rookie of the Year. LT was immediately a dominant pass rusher and was named first team All-Pro — a rarity for a rookie. Taylor wasn’t just a game changer but a franchise changer, too. The New York Giants had missed the playoffs 17 straight seasons until Taylor helped get them into the postseason his first year.

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Source: Mike Powell / Allsport / Getty Images

3. Wayne Gretzky
> League: NHL
> Rookie season: 1979-1980
> Team: Edmonton Oilers
> Statistics: 51 goals, 86 assists, Hart Trophy

“The Great One” was great from day one. In his first NHL season with the Edmonton Oilers, Wayne Gretzky obliterated the rookie scoring record, with 137 points. Before then, no rookie had ever reached more than 100. Gretzky played pro hockey in the World Hockey Association for a season before his team joined the NHL, so he was not eligible for the Calder Trophy for top rookie. However, he did win the Hart Trophy for the most valuable player — his first of nine.

Source: Otto Greule Jr / Allsport / Getty Images

2. Ichiro Suzuki
> League: MLB
> Rookie season: 2001
> Team: Seattle Mariners
> Statistics: .350 average, Gold Glove, AL MVP

Ichiro Suzuki was already a star baseball player in Japan when, at age 27, he came to America in 2001 to play in the big leagues. Suzuki was an immediate sensation in Seattle. In his rookie season, he led the MLB in stolen bases and hits, won a Gold Glove, and batted .350, earning Rookie of the Year and MVP honors. Suzuki made the All-Star Game and won a Gold Glove each of the first 10 seasons of his surefire Hall of Fame career.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

1. Wilt Chamberlain
> League: NBA
> Rookie season: 1959-60
> Team: Philadelphia Warriors
> Statistics: 37.6 points per game, 27 rebounds per game

No player has ever had a rookie season as great as Wilt Chamberlain. In the 1959-1960 NBA season, he tallied 37.6 points and 27 rebounds per game for the Philadelphia Warriors, shattering previous records for both. The only player who surpassed those scoring and rebounding records was Chamberlain himself. Wilt the Stilt was the clear choice for Rookie of the Year, and he continued his dominance throughout his career. A 13-time All-Star, Chamberlain led the NBA in scoring seven times, rebounds 11 times, and shooting percentage nine times.

Methodology:

Nearly all athletes on the list of greatest rookies won their league’s rookie of the year award, though a handful did not. Ronnie Lott and Lawrence Taylor, who are both on this list, were drafted in 1981. Both were All-Pro in their rookie years, but Taylor edged out Lott for the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

The Rookie of the Year award in baseball only dates back to 1947, so players like Ted Williams, who began their careers before then, had no such award to win. Wayne Gretzky was not eligible for the NHL’s rookie honor, the Calder Trophy, despite shattering the rookie scoring record. Gretzky’s team, the Edmonton Oilers, played in the World Hockey Association for a season before joining the NHL, so Gretzky’s first NHL season wasn’t his first year as a pro hockey player.

To determine the greatest rookies of all time, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed historical statistics of the four major American sports leagues — NFL, NHL, MLB, and NBA — on the Sports Reference family of sites. Players were considered if they won their league’s rookie of the year award or achieved another notable accomplishment in their first full season. Some MLB rookies are not in their first season. Baseball players can have up to 130 at-bats, 50 innings pitched, or 45 days on the active roster in the Major Leagues before their rookie eligibility is exhausted. Several MLB players on this list meet this criteria.