The Bellamy Bunch
Taking a close look at some players who peaked in their rookie season.
The other day I was doing some research on the greatest rookie seasons of all time and ended up getting sidetracked by Walt Bellamy. Walt Bellamy? Yes, Walt Bellamy. You see, Bellamy had his finest season in the NBA as a rookie, a feat that I thought had to be highly unusual given the Hall of Famer’s 14-season, 1043-game career. And just like that, I had an idea for my next piece: How many players with careers of significant length had their peak season as a rookie?
Before I could go about answering this question, I had two define two terms:
What is a career of significant length? Lots of players who played just a handful of seasons peaked as rookies, so I decided to restrict my attention to players who debuted in the 1951-52 season or later (when minutes were first recorded) and played in at least 820 games. This gave me a pool of 397 players. I then decided to remove the six players who played in the ABA (Julius Erving, Artis Gilmore, Caldwell Jones, Maurice Lucas, Moses Malone, and Mark Olberding), reducing the sample to 391 players.
How do you determine a player’s peak season? There’s no one right answer, of course, but I decided a player’s peak season should take into account both his efficiency and overall production. I settled on a simple formula: Player Efficiency Rating (PER), divided by 15 (the league average), multiplied by minutes. Note that the score of an average player using this method will be equal to his minutes.
Now that I had a player pool and a definition for seasonal value, I could move on to the good stuff. First, here’s a summary of the number of players who achieved their peak score in a particular season:
1st — 8 (2.0%)
2nd — 23 (5.9%)
3rd — 48 (12.3%)
4th — 45 (11.5%)
5th — 54 (13.8%)
6th — 61 (15.6%)
7th — 48 (12.3%)
8th — 39 (10.0%)
9th — 33 (8.4%)
10th — 20 (5.1%)
11th — 5 (1.3%)
12th — 4 (1.0%)
13th — 3 (0.8%)
A few observations:
Only eight of these players achieved their peak score in their rookie season (more on them below).
More players achieved their peak score in their sixth season than any other season.
A majority of these players (61.1%) had achieved their peak score by the end of their sixth season.
The three players who achieved their peak score in their 13th season are Robert Parish (1988-89), Lou Williams (2017-18), and DeMar DeRozan (2021-22).
Now, let’s take a close look at the players who peaked in their rookie season, going in chronological order:
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