This is your basic middle-aged division. No really new franchises (Minnesota is the most recently created squad) but most came into the NBA in the mid-1970s. So, you wouldn’t expect too many deep All-Rookie rosters. Let’s take a look and see…
–Denver Nuggets: Denver is one of the few franchises without actually having a Rookie of the Year winner. Many of the franchises great players were actually rookies elsewhere. Alex English came up with the Bucks. Calvin Natt and Fat Lever came up with Portland (Natt first via New Jersey). Michael Adams started with Sacramento. In addition, the great Nuggets of the 1970s really are from the ABA and thus aren’t counted in our inquiry. The closest that the Nuggets came to getting Rookie of the Year was Dikembe Mutombo in 1991-92. He was leading the field rather handily most of the year (he came out really strong averaging about 20 ppg his first month) but tailed off and missed all of April with injuries. His fall, coupled with Larry Johnson’s surge in Charlotte, shifted the award to LJ. In any event, Mutombo was very good and is still the only contender for top rookie center in Nugget history.
Moving over to power forward, the Nuggets accrued plenty of nice contenders in the 1990s alone with Laphonso Ellis, Antonio McDyess, and Raef LaFrentz. Raef was off to the best start only to have his rookie year ended after 12 games because of a knee injury, a recurring theme in his waning career. Not much separates Ellis and McDyess but Ellis boarded a little bit better and played a little more. We’ll also give honorable mention to part-time power forwards who had competitive per-minute stats in Nene and Mark Alarie. Small forward is pretty easy to choose. Kiki Vandeweghe and Rodney Rogers did well in small roles but Carmelo Anthony was already starting, scoring, and playing tons of minutes as a rookie.
In the backcourt, point guard offers very little but interesting stories. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf is the best candidate but he wasn’t really a point guard as a rookie but he put up 14 ppg and 3 apg off the bench. His only competition is the long forgotten Rob Williams, a guard out of the University of Houston, who left school after shooting 0-8 in losing the NCAA title game to N.C. State in 1983. The Nuggets drafted him and he immediately became a controversial figure. In retrospect, his stats don’t look bad for a 21-year old rookie (7 ppg, 5 apg in 19.5 mpg in 1982-83) but he was not loved by the Nuggets or coach Doug Moe.
Williams held out of camp as a rookie only to show up out of shape, prompting Moe to call him “a fat little hog.” Williams numbers improved his second year to 10.2 ppg and 5.9 apg in 24 mpg but was constantly late for team events, often blaming robberies at his home for his absences. Moe was quoted as saying: “[w]hat do they want, his gold tooth?” At the same time, Fat Lever was developing and the team was concerned that Williams had a drug problem. In September 1984, the Nuggets asked Williams to submit to random drug tests, something he agreed to despite the fact that it was a legally dubious request. This didn’t work out well for Williams, who was cut a month later and never played in the NBA again. He lasted awhile in the CBA and Europe before returning to the America. Williams later admitted to having a drug problems and would unfortunately suffer a stroke in the late 1990s. These days, he is reported to run a home for mentally challenged children in Texas. All this is our long way of saying that Abdul-Rauf is the better choice at point since he wasn’t ticking off his team when he was rookie (though Abdul-Rauf’s later National Anthem controversy certainly didn’t endear him to the team either).
At shooting guards, things are really tight. There are no starting rookie shooting guards for the Nuggets, just Todd Lichti, Jalen Rose, and Bryant Stith, three guys who played a bit off the bench and did deccently. All three of these guys averaged between 7 and 8.2 ppg as rookies. Stith was probably the least effective of the three, and he missed half the season with injuries. This leaves Lichti and Rose. Lichti was a pretty effective scorer as a rookie (8 ppg in 17 mpg) but lacked any peripheral abilities, while Rose did a little bit of everything. Based upon this versatility, we’ll take Rose. This gives us the following lineup:
Denver’s Forgotten Rookie: I think Rob Williams fits pretty well in this category. Since we already discussed him, let’s throw in Jerome Lane. Lane was an undersized power forward out of Pitt who was paired with Charles Smith to make a nice run in the Big East. Lane was best remembered for tearing off a rim on a dunk in college but he was a monster rebounder, with no other dimensions. As a rookie for the 1988-89 Nuggets, Lane had 5 ppg and 3.7 rpg in 10 mpg. He maxed out at 7.5 ppg and 9.3 rpg in 22 mpg for the run n’ gun 1990-91 Nuggets. Lane’s rebound rate remained impressive everywhere he played even as he bounced around to three more teams over the next two years. In the end, however, Lane’s career numbers were 5.3 ppg and 5. 8 rpg in 15 mpg (218 total career games). If you normalize Lane’s career numbers per-40 minutes they really tell the unique story: 14.4 ppg, 15.7 rpg, 4 apg, 1.7 spg, and 0.5 bpg. He would also have averaged 6.8 fouls per 40 minutes and shot .379% from the line. A weird skill set for sure, but Lane might’ve had a Reggie Evan’s type career had he landed in the right situation.
Instead, Lane was consigned to the CBA for most of the 1990s, where he dominated the boards, including two of the top 10 rebound seasons in CBA history (16.8 rpg in 1995-96, 14.5 rpg in 1998-99). He is currently coaching basketball back in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, where he was the city’s best player until some guy name LeBron James popped up.
–Minnesota Timberwolves: Minnesota has a rather unremarkable rookie history. The T-Wolves spent their early years drafting mostly duds until 1995 when they got Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury in back-to-back drafts. Since then, they haven’t really had any great rookies either. Accordingly, there ain’t much to choose from here. At point guard, Marbury (15.8 ppg, 7.8 apg) was a pretty good rookie, with Pooh Richardson (11.4 ppg, 6.8 apg), the original Wolves’ draft pick back in 1989 a close second. Shooting guard comes down to choir boy Wally Szczerbiak and the not quite so choiry J.R. Rider. Wally World was better on a per-minute basis but Rider scored a bit more and was a better overall player at that time.
Going to the frontcourt, KG gets the small forward slot but not because he was so dominant as a 19-year old (10.4 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.8 apg in 29 mpg) but because there is no competition at all, as there are really no other rookie small forwards of note. Anyway, Garnett was good on a per-minute basis and improved each month (putting up 16.1 ppg and 8.5 apg in April 1996). At power forward, the original would-be T-Wolf savior Christian Laettner is the only viable candidate. Laettner never became the star some thought he would but he was good immediately (18.2 ppg and 8.7 rpg as a rookie) and those points and rebounding rates were actually the highest of his career.
At center, things get dicey. In 1990, the Wolves took big lumbering Felton Spencer and the slightly less lumbering Luc Longley the next year. Both had workman like careers but Spencer played more and was more efficient as a rookie. Ironically, both centers ended their career with Knicks in the early 2000s as twelfth men. Both these lottery picks, however, were nowhere near as good as a rookie as Dean Garrett was in 1996-97. Garrett was a 30-year old rookie that Kevin McHale snagged. Garrett was really effective as a rookie, taking the starting job and putting up 8 ppg and 7 rpg in 24 mpg. This leaves with a Wolves All-Rookie team that really is the best of the 1990s:
Minnesota’s Forgotten Rookie: Let’s go back to Garrett. He was part of the Indiana NCAA title team from 1986-87 that famously beat Syracuse at the buzzer on a Keith Smart Jumper. Garrett was drafted in the second round of the 1988 draft but couldn’t make an NBA team because he was considered undersized to play center at 6’9 and 230 pounds. He then spent the next seven years in Europe before McHale signed him up for the 1996-97 season. Garrett was like a breath of fresh air for the Wolves that year, very active on the boards and blocking shots at a nice clip (1.4 bpg). Since Garrett had a one-year make good deal, he had tremendous leverage after that first season. While McHale would later make a career of overpaying his own free agents, he let Garrett walk to Denver for a five-year $15 million contract. He started all 82 games for Denver in 1997-98 but his numbers were down across the board. Within one season, Garrett had gone from nice find to millstone contract. In the summer of 1998, the Nuggets dumped Garrett back to the Nuggets after the season in a three-team deal that also netted Minny Bobby Jackson. Garrett played out the rest of the big contract with Minnesota (except for 5 games in the middle of his final season in 2001-02) and was out of the NBA at age-35. Garrett stopped playing and is now invested in several Minnesota businesses.
-Portland Trailblazers: In terms of rookies, Portland is the crown jewel of the division. They have three Rookies of the Year, Geoff Petrie and Sidney Wicks in the early 1970s and Brandon Roy just last year. In the meantime, they’ve had plenty of other nice rookies. The point guard position is filled with decent options (Johnny Davis, Darnell Valentine, Fat Lever, Terry Porter, Jarrett Jack). They were all pretty solid on a per-minute basis but Lever was the best and he was the player who played the most. At two guard Petrie and Roy square off in the toughest choice on the roster. Petrie was a star scorer (24.8 ppg, 4.8 apg, and 3.4 rpg) and Roy was a solid an defficient overall player (17 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 4 apg). Though Petrie played in a higher scoring era, his numbers are very impressive and he played an 82-games season (Roy missed 25 games with injury last year). In case your wondering, Clyde Drexler was a bit player as a rookie, which takes him out of the conversation.
Small forward is also a little bare. The good small forwards of Blazer history (Jerome Kersey, Cliff Robinson) weren’t that effective as rookies and the players who played (Lionel Hollins and Bobby Gross) weren’t really small forwards. Consequently, we’ll slot Roy over to small forward. Power forward is taken by Sidney Wicks, who peaked as a rookie in 1971-72 but quickly faded.
Center is the most crowded position of the rookie roster. They have Bill Walton, who was quite good until he broke his foot and missed about 60% of the season. Mychal Thompson and Sam Bowie were both solid as rookies. But the clear choice is Arvydas Sabonis, who came to the NBA as an injured and out-of-shape 31-year old in 1995-96. He was placed on limited minutes that first year because of injury concerns but was so effective they had to expand his role. Sabonis put up 14. 5ppg, 8.1 rpg in 24 mpg and shot 55% from the field. That calculates to a mind-boggling 24.4 ppg, 13.6 rpg, 3.0 apg, 1.5 spg, and 1.8 bpg if you pro-rate his rookie stats per 40 minutes.
Portland’s Forgotten Rookie: There are few weirder NBA stories than that of Walter Berry. Berry was a stud power forward for St. John’s in the mid-1980s and looked like a potential star (23 ppg, 11.1 rpg as a senior). The Blazers drafted Berry with the 14th pick of the 1986 draft and it immediately did not work. First, Berry held out and then he clashed with coach Mike Schuler. When he finally got to the team, Schuler benched him.
Berry sat the bench and played only 7 games and 19 minutes games for Portland. He then skipped a game in protest and the Blazers promptly dumped him to San Antonio for Kevin Duckworth. Berry missed his flight to San Antonio, which was a bad start, but was pretty good that year when he finally made it (17.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg). Still, there were more problems when Berry was subpoenaed by a grand jury in relation to an investigation into heroin smuggling at the end of the season. The next year, 1987-88, Berry played well (17.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg) but his defensive lapses drove coach Larry Brown crazy and he traded Berry to the Nets after the season for the immortal Dallas Comegys.
Things continued to devolve in New Jersey in 1988-89. Berry played poorly and was divisive in the locker room. He was cut after 29 games. Nets GM Harry Weltman didn’t exactly love the guy. Upon cutting Berry, Weltman said that: “”[f]rankly, Walter had major problems accepting his role. I don’t think he was working very hard. I think for us to go our separate ways at this time is best for all concerned.” Berry was picked up by Houston but was cut at the end of the season. Berry went on to play very well in Europe through the early 2000s but never played in the NBA again (though he did try out for the NBA a few more times). In the end, Berry was a bona fide NBA player but he wasn’t quite good enough to overcome his less-than-easy-to-coach personality, reminding us that attitude can only be tolerated when you meet a certain talent threshold.
-Seattle SuperSonics: Forget the 2000s and the potential move to Oklahoma. The Sonics have historically been a very respectable franchise that always excelled in developing their younger players. But developing rookies over time does not mean that the Sonics had many rookie sensations. In fact, they haven’t had any Rookies of the Year because all the great Sonics weren’t great as rookies. Dennis Johnson, Jack Sikma, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Rashard Lewis, Fred Brown…not a single one of them was anything more than decent starting out. Of course there is a lesson here that you don’t have to draft a Shaquille O’Neal to find star players. Sure, you hope for the Shaq-type of player but finding All-Stars with later picks doesn’t hurt a franchise either.
In terms of stocking our All-Rookie roster, the backcourt is a quandary. The Sonics don’t really have tons of pure points or shooting guard rookies to examine. Rather, they have a cluster of big guards and hybrids. The list includes Payton (who was slow to develop as a rookie), Dennis Johnson, Dana Barros, Nate McMillan, Luke Ridnour and Slick Watts. It’s really hard to separate this group. They all averaged between 20 and 28 ,pg and they all were in single digits in scoring with PER ratings between 13 and 17. In the end, we’ll go with DJ (who had the highest per minute rankings) and McMillan because he passed and boarded so well, even if he couldn’t score.
Small forward is the easiest to set. Xavier McDaniel was a monster as a rookie and he was probably the best Seattle rookie ever. Honorable mention goes to Al Tucker, a forward who was respectable for the inaugural Sonics of 1967-68. Power forward presents Kemp, who was good in very limited minutes, versus Derrick McKey and Nick Collison who were both solid in 20 mpg range. My gut wants to take Kemp, because he was so good, but in less than 15 mpg it’s hard to give him the nod (we generally like the rookie to play at least 20 mpg, let alone 15). Rather, we’ll go with McKey over Collison because McKey was the better defender. We also throw in that Collison missed his entire “true rookie year” with shoulder surgery, so he was a little older than McKey.
At center, Jack Sikma is the best center in team history. As a rookie, however, he wasn’t quite as great (11 ppg and 8 rpg in 27 mpg). His main competition is big Tom Burleson (10 ppg, 7 rpg in 23 mpg), the 7’2 N.C. State center, who the Sonics drafted third overall in 1974. It’s interesting to juxtapose these two players because their careers were nearly complete opposites. Burleson was the large, unskilled big man who peaked as a second year player but was out of he NBA by 1981. Sikma, was a shooter and a finesse center, and a surprise second round pick, who went on to have a 14-year career. Long term, Sikma was better but as a rookie, we’ll go with Burleson for his better per-minute stats.
Seattle’s Forgotten Rookie: This is not a team with too many interesting forgotten rookie stories. A player who was decent for the center-poor Sonics was Peja Drobnjak. Drobnjak hasn’t been gone from the NBA very long (2004-05 was his last season) but he came to Seattle as a second rounder in 2001-02 and played respectably for two seasons. He rebounded poorly and couldn’t block a shot to save his life but Drobnjak could hit the open jump shoot quite well. He was a very similar player to Michael Doleac, if Doleac looked like a very large hedgehog. Drobnjak left the NBA to play in Europe in 2005 when he was offered a three-year deal, which is set to expire after this season. For entertainment value, you can check out his old web site with Sonics… pretty funny stuff.
–Utah Jazz: Yes the Stockton-to-Malone franchise has a Rookie of the Year but it wasn’t either of those guys. It was former Louisville Doctor of Dunk Darrell Griffith. He put up very good scoring numbers for the Jazz up until a injuries slowed him down in the mid-1980s and as a rookie he was explosive (20.6 ppg). He claims the Jazz All-Rookie shooting guard slot with ease. Stockton doesn’t have quite the same strong claim to the point guard slot. He played about 20 mpg and was okay but didn’t distinguish himself from other rookie candidates Raul Lopez or Deron Williams. In fact, all three were pretty mediocre but Williams is the choice if only because he was the only Jazz rookie to start most of the season.
Small forward give us something very old (1970s small forward Aaron James), something new (Andre Kirilenko) and something in the middle (Thurl Bailey). AK-47 was such a good per-minute player as a rookie that be blows away James’ decent scoring clip (Bailey really was just okay as a rookie). Power forward is ruled by Karl Malone, who was solid, if not a star, as a rookie. Paul Millsap was really more productive in his 18 mpg last year (7 ppg, 5 rpg) but Malone played so much more that he gets the choice. As an aside, I don’t know if Millsap can parlay this start in to an incredible career but he is certainly a player that should be watched.
Both the Jazz stiff of the 1980s (Mark Eaton) and the Jazz stiff of the 1990s (Greg Ostertag) are in the conversation for best Jazz rookie center. They were quite serviceable players but neither was nearly as good as Rich Kelley, who produced even more as a rookie in limited time than the aforementioned Millsap. Kelley played 18 mpg for the 1975-76 Jazz. and had 7 ppg, 7 rpg and 0.8 bpg. This wasn’t a fluke for Kelley either. He maxed out at 15.7 ppg and 12.8 rpg for the Jazz in 1978-79 before settling into a nice backup center for most of the 1980s. Kelley was a pretty interesting guy too. He went to Stanford and had a degree in psychology and was known as a quasi-hippie type.
Utah’s Forgotten Rookie: Like the Sonics, you’re not going to find too many interesting rookie stories. You want obscure names? We can give you that. Duck Williams…Burt Kofoed…Torraye Braggs. Intersting stories? They might have ’em but they are hard to find. We’ll go with Mitchell “J.J.” Anderson (he was so nicknamed because of his resemblance to comedian J.J. Walker), a 6’8 forward out of Bradley in 1982. Anderson was a high school legend in Chicago, scoring 43.5 ppg as a senior. He had a decent college career at Bradley and was drafted by the Sixers in the second-round of the 19892 draft. The Sixers were very good (on their way to a 67-win team) and Anderson could not get any time and Philly cut him after 13 games. Anderson missed the playoff shares from the eventual playoff shares from that legendary Sixer team but managed to establish a himself in Utah when Adrian Dantley broke his wrist and the Jazz gave Anderson a shot to play. Anderson had a nice 52-game run (8.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg in 22 mpg) that season. Dantley returned the next year and Anderson sat the bench the next two seasons with Utah. In 1985-86, Anderson went over to Europe to play and did quite well. He lasted there for the next 11 years and was even dubbed the “Michael Jordan of Europe.” Anderson is now back in the States and is a scout for the Grizzlies.