It’s hard being a rookie. Lonzo Ball already has a target on his back, Markelle Fultz can’t lift his arms above his head because of a shoulder injury, Lauri Markkannen has to play for an organization in free-fall, and there already are questions about whether Dennis Smith is more stats than substance.
Sports fandom loves to look at rookies as the great hopes for their favorite teams. The good ones, after all, end up playing for the previous season’s most dismal franchises, which means a lot depends on their immediate success. In the case of someone like Ball, who plays for the most visible franchise in the league, every game fits under a magnifying glass.
In fact, on Wednesday Skip Bayless tweeted, “No rookie in sports history has had a higher degree of difficulty than Lonzo Ball, thanks to his father,” which is the sort of hot take that’s common for rookies. Everything is a superlative when it comes to the kids, even though, as the internet collectively pointed out to Bayless, Jackie Robinson would have all sorts of things to say about difficult rookie seasons.
The truth, though, is that Ball already is having a pretty good rookie year just a few games into his professional career. There have been plenty of highly-touted rookies in the past, though, that have fallen short of expectations right out of the gate. Even some eventual Hall of Famers and current superstars have started off their careers in truly disappointing ways.
The following are the five NBA stars with the worst rookie campaigns:
Steve Nash, Dallas Mavericks
One of the reasons Nash’s two MVP awards were so surprising is because he emerged from incredibly humble beginnings as a rookie with the Dallas Mavericks back in 1996-1997. In his first year out of Santa Clara, Nash played only 10.5 minutes per game, scoring only 3.3 points and dishing out only 2.1 assists a night. His 10.8 PER as a rookie obviously was the lowest of his career, and his 0.7 win shares was the second-lowest of his career, ahead only of his frustrating injury-plagued final season with the L.A. Lakers. Those MVP campaigns were a thing of beauty, but Nash’s career sure didn’t start off too pretty.
John Stockton, Utah Jazz
For the first three seasons of Stockton’s career, he came off of the bench in Utah behind point guard Rickey Green, a relegation that made it possible to count his combined points and assists per game on two hands most nights. In his rookie year, Stockton averaged a paltry 5.6 points and 5.1 assists per contest, playing only 18 minutes a game. His .417 field goal shooting percentage and .736 free-throw percentage were the lowest of his career, too. That first year, he was worth only 3.1 win shares, compared to 15.6 win shares just five seasons later, so once he did get the starting gig he did incredible things with it. Settling in just took some time.
Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers
It probably isn’t too big of a surprise that Bryant was a somewhat raw prospect fresh out of high school in 1996, but he didn’t exactly come out scoring like gangbusters during his rookie season. That first year, Bryant failed to play 26+ minutes per night for the only time in his entire career, and in those 15.5 minutes he only managed to score 7.6 points (a career low by miles). Aside from his age 36 and 37 seasons, when Bryant’s legs were giving out and his scoring efficiency plummeted, the .417 field goal percentage his rookie year was about as bad as it got in Bryant’s career as a volume scorer. Everyone saw the potential, but as an 18-year-old, the maturity and skills just weren’t there yet.
Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
When Jimmy Butler speaks to the media these days, he’s consumed by a throng of reporters shoving tape recorders (or iPhones with tape recorder apps) into his face. But as a rookie, Butler and his buzz cut sat alone in the Chicago locker room most nights, cracking jokes while his cowboy boots sat idle in his locker. Despite his charisma, Butler was an afterthought his first season in the league, in large part because of head coach Tom Thibodeau’s reticence to play rookies. Butler, the 30th overall pick in the draft, saw only 8.6 minutes per game as a rook, which was just enough to drop in a couple points and an assist or two most nights. Nobody saw his breakout coming, largely because his rookie campaign was one of the most forgettable in recent memory.
Gary Payton, Seattle SuperSonics
While “The Glove” would go onto be one of the most respected all-around players of his generation, he certainly didn’t start off all that strong as a rookie for the Seattle SuperSonics. Wearing #2 that year rather than his trademark #20, Payton limped his way through that rookie season, despite starting all 82 games. He scored only 7.2 points per game and shot an abysmal .077 from three-point range, both easily the worse in his career. While Payton was reasonably successful in other areas (he averaged 6.4 assists and two steals per game), his offensive shortcomings made his rookie year an especially long one.
Lonzo Ball, despite the extra attention he’s being given by opposing teams’ best defenders, is off to a Hall of Fame start to his career compared to some of the players mentioned above. Markelle Fultz, however, could find himself among those future stars that struggled early in their careers.
However it happens, being a rookie isn’t easy. They don’t all have it as hard as Jackie Robinson, but it rarely happens that a first run through the league is an overwhelmingly successful one.
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