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NBA Daily: Best-Ever Playoff Rookies

Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell are having fantastic playoff debuts as rookies, but how do they compare against the all-time greats as rookies?

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What Donovan Mitchell has done as a rookie in these 2018 NBA Playoffs is nothing short of remarkable. In scoring 171 points through his first six playoff games, Mitchell scored more in his half-dozen first postseason games than anybody this side of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Wilt Chamberlain. That is objectively impressive.

In many ways, what Mitchell did in that Oklahoma City series is even more impressive considering he’s not six inches taller than the people attempting to guard him. To score that many points in a rookie postseason is, frankly, unfathomable.

This has been a coming-out party for Mitchell (to say nothing of what Ben Simmons is doing as a rookie in Philadelphia), but outside of Abdul-Jabbar and Chamberlain, how does Donovan’s postseason debut compare to other notable postseason debuts? The following takes a closer look at some of the most memorable playoff performances by rookies over the last 40 years:

Michael Jordan, 1985

As amazing as Mitchell has been scoring the ball as a rookie, he has not scored more per game than Jordan did in his rookie playoff excursion. After winning Rookie of the Year in 1985, Jordan’s Bulls squad snuck into the postseason, and he did everything he could to keep them afloat against the Central Division Milwaukee Bucks. He averaged 29.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 8.5 assists per game in that four-game series, including 35 points in Game 3. That team wasn’t ready to compete just yet, but it was clear that Jordan wouldn’t just be a regular-season marvel; he would be an immediate a postseason legend, as well.

Hakeem Olajuwon, 1985

Much like this year, where Mitchell and Simmons are showing some of the most poised rookie postseason play in league history, 1985 was similarly productive. Not only did Jordan explode in his playoff series debut, but Olajuwon did as well. He averaged 21.2 points, 13 rebounds, and 2.6 rebounds per game in his opening five-game series against Utah, including a 32-point, 14-board, six-block showing in the Game 5 eliminator.

Tim Duncan, 1998

Unlike Olajuwon and Jordan, Duncan did win his first series, eventually earning a nine-game first go-round in the NBA playoffs. He’d drop 32 points and haul in ten rebounds his very first game against the Phoenix Suns, and in Game 1 of his second-round series against Utah, he dropped 33 and 12. He’d finish the postseason leading the Spurs in scoring with 20.7 points per game, while also chipping in nine boards per contest and 2.6 blocks a night.

Derrick Rose, 2009

Seeing some flashes of vintage Derrick Rose in this spring’s postseason is a subtle reminder of just how good he was as a rookie with the Chicago Bulls in 2009. While his stats (19.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game) may have been padded a bit the whopping seven overtime periods the Bulls and Celtics played over the course of their series, right out of the gate Rose scored 36 points in Game 1 against the defending champions. Chicago didn’t win the series, but Rose proved that, long before his knees quit on him, he was one of the shiniest young stars in the league.

David Robinson, 1990

Robinson’s rookie year wasn’t all that different from Abdul-Jabbar’s or Wilt Chamberlain’s in that he came into the league as a physically overpowering tall person that just destroyed any human that attempted to defend him. In two series as a rookie, Robinson averaged 24.3 points, 12 rebounds and 4 blocks per game for the Spurs, numbers that were fairly consistent throughout the teams ten playoff games that year.

Larry Bird, 1980

Even better than Simmons/Mitchell or Jordan/Olajuwon were the rookie performances by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the spring of 1980. Bird, through two series, averaged 21.3 points, 11.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game after helping the Celtics go from 29 wins to 61 wins in consecutive seasons—a record turnaround to this day—but his playoff experience was no less legendary. In the second round, Boston bumped up against a tough Philly team, but Bird rose to the occasion, scoring 30 points in Game 2 and posting 22 points and 21 rebounds in Game 3. Boston, despite being the top seed that year, lost the series, but not before Bird showed what a headache he’d be in the postseason for years to come.

Magic Johnson, 1980

No rookie has ever had a postseason debut more successful than Johnson, in part because he was integral in leading the L.A. Lakers to a title in 1980, but also because he came six-tenths of an assist per game from averaging a triple-double throughout the entire playoffs. He also averaged 3.1 steals per game over his 16 postseason games that year, but more than anything, we remember Magic Johnson having to play center in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals and scoring 42 points (to go along with 15 rebounds and 7 assists) from that position.

Unless Simmons or Mitchell wins a championship this year, they’ve got a long way to go before they can top that.

Of course, this is the year that Simmons could make an NBA Finals and Mitchell could shatter modern-era scoring records for rookies, so they absolutely belong on this list. The reality of that, especially when compared to some of these names, likely bodes well for the futures of the Sixers and Jazz.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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