It’s time to crown future Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard. As if you need to know that the kid is nice- he’s been selected Rookie of the Month 4 times, leads all rookies in PER (player efficiency rating), win shares, usage rate, and is near the top of the leader board in anything outside of rebounding for first year players.
As Chris Webber gushed over Lillard’s play during TNT’s Thursday night broadcast of Knicks vs. Blazers, it made you wonder if this young man was doing something truly historic this season.
Well, he’s 4th in the entire NBA in minutes per game (averages 38.5). That puts him on pace to become 4th all-time in minutes played by a rookie guard, and places him in the company of Mark ‘Momma There Goes That Man’ Jackson, A.I., and the Blunted Mouse: Damon Stoudemire.
How-eva, Lillard has all those former young guns beat in three-pointers made, while posting better true shooting and effective field goal percentages. He also has the fewest turnovers per game amongst those rookie points, despite ranking 11th all-time in usage rate for rookie guards.
All this information is easily accessible through a wonderful web site called basketballreference. If you use their play index tool, you can define your own search parameters and solve debates throughout basketball history with cold hard data. But you’re a busy person, right? Juggling work with checking the stats and scores in your CAC leagues- so I’ll just run down the most efficient rookie seasons in the history of the association:
Wilt Chamberlain (1959-60): 37 PPG, 27 RPG, and a 28.0 PER
Let’s get players from the ‘short ball’ era out of the way first. When you look at Wilt’s numbers they are absolutely mind-blowing. Yes, he owns 62 records. Including 100 points and 55 rebounds in a game. And he did it consistently- these numbers are absurd- 103 30-point, 30-rebound games, to go along with 8 40-40 games.
Cleary Chamberlain is one of the greatest to ever do it and he came right into league ready to dominate. I would argue that that has something to do with the fact that opposing Centers were comparatively tiny. The guy guarding him during his 100-point game notably was only 6-foot-7. So there’s that.
Magic Johnson (1979-80): 18 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 7.3 APG
Since we are talking about floor generals, how does the architect of showtime stack up against Dame Lillard? Magic led the Lakers in assists, tallying over 25% of his team’s dimes while on the court, and did it at a high rate of efficiency. Earvin ranks 7th all-time in true shooting percentage (60.4) during a rookie campaign, and his 10.5 win shares are nothing to sneeze at.
Yet Johnson took a while to find his groove. He didn’t average over 10 assists per game until his fourth year, and his penchant for flashy passes contributed to the 4- turnover average he posted throughout his career. That includes 4.0 turnovers a game in his rookie season, numbers that Lillard is already too polished to commit.
Michael Jordan (1984-85): 28.2 PPG on 51.5 FG%, 25.8 PER
Don’t even compare MJ to anyone, LeBron included, until they transcend the game. We’re talking about a guy that took over the league during its golden age, not like Wilt the Stilt, who could be compared to the kid on the playground who dominated after a growth spurt.
Of course His Airness didn’t play perfect at first. He shot under 20 percent from 3-point range during his first four seasons, and he did turn the ball over 3.5 times per game in his rookie season. There was even a learning curve for the greatest ever.
LeBron James (2003-04): 20.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.9 APG, 18.3 PER
LeBron’s rookie numbers are comparable to Jordan’s on the surface, but he led his time with far less efficiency. His 18.3 PER ranks 74th all-time for rookie campaigns, and his 5.1 win shares are nearly tripled by Jordan’s 14. LeBron’s true shooting percentage was only 48 during his rookie year.
He really struggled to find that jumper for several years, before going on his historic run of 30+ points and 60+ percent shooting from the field this season. The fact that this run drew legitimate comparisons to MJ is a debate for another time, but clearly LeBron’s rookie season left a lot to be desired.
Damian Lillard (2012-13): 19.1 PPG, 6.5 APG, 54.8 TS%
Lillard’s bulk numbers and athletic ability may not be as impressive as some of the other great ones listed above, but the fact that he seems ahead of his time as an NBA players is truly amazing. It’s crazy how polished this young man is in his first year, there’s not much room for improvement, so if he can keep playing like this- which is basically at an all-star level- for the rest of his career, we should continue to discuss Dame amongst the greats.