Top 5 sophomore seasons in NBA history

Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans.
Zion Williamson #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans.
Modified 15 Apr 2021

Playing at a high level in the NBA is not easy for a young player, as a logical process of adaptation takes place for that athlete after joining the biggest basketball league in the world. In the last few years, we've seen Slovenian Luka Doncic last year and Zion Williamson in the current campaign making a huge impact in only their second year in the league.

5 Greatest sophomore seasons in NBA history

Doncic put up 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 8.8 assists per game as a sophomore in the NBA (he was already a professional with Real Madrid before entering the league). More importantly, Luka guided the Dallas Mavericks to a 43-32 regular-season record and performed impressively in the first-round series against the favored LA Clippers.

On the other hand, Zion Williamson is averaging 26.8 points, seven rebounds, and three assists per game with a 62% field-goal percentage. More impressively, Williamson only played 23 games in his rookie year, but is already imposing his extraordinary physique in the paint.

Though Doncic and Williamson were impressive in their respective sophomore seasons and even earned All-Star recognition, the NBA has seen some legendary performances from sophomores throughout its history.

We take a look at the five greatest sophomore campaigns in NBA history.

#5 Oscar Robertson - 1961-62 NBA season

The Big O
The Big O

Oscar Robertson's 1961-62 NBA season will always be remembered by diehard NBA fans. And as the triple-double trend continues in the current league, his name will naturally come up when discussing such feats.

What is not usually mentioned about 'The Big O' and his triple-double throughout the entire 1961-62 season is that it was only his second year in the NBA. The 23-year-old guard averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and a league-leading 11.4 assists per game.

Although Robertson earned All-Star and All-NBA first team recognition, he finished third in one of the craziest MVP races in history. Bill Russell won the MVP that year, and Wilt Chamberlain (who averaged a record 50.4 points per game) finished second.

#4 Bill Russell - 1957-58 NBA season

Bill Russell and Red Auerbach.
Bill Russell and Red Auerbach.

Bill Russell's 13-year NBA career was one of the greatest in sports history, as he guided the Boston Celtics to 11 championships between 1956 and 1969. However, in his 12 appearances in the NBA Finals, Russell's Celtics only fell at that stage once, and it was precisely in Russell's sophomore year.

Still, Russell's second year in the NBA was a historic one, and he went on to win his first NBA MVP award while guiding Boston to the NBA Finals. He was also the best defender in the league by every metric known.

That year, Russell averaged 16.6 points and 22.7 rebounds per game.

#3 Larry Bird - 1980-81 NBA season

Larry Bird.
Larry Bird.

Some players have had extraordinary sophomore seasons, but only a few have led a team to the NBA Championship in only their second NBA campaign. Larry Bird was one of the two greatest players of the 1980s, and he showed his greatness from his first year in the league.

For the 1979-80 season, Bird was the only major addition to a Boston Celtics roster that posted a lowly 29-53 record the previous year. As a rookie, Bird led the team to a 61-21 record, and he took it a step forward as a sophomore.

Though he did not post flashy numbers, his 21 points, 10 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game were enough for the Celtics to have a 62-20 campaign. In the NBA Playoffs, Bird posted 22 points, 14 rebounds, six assists and two blocks per game in 17 games and guided the team to the NBA championship.

Bird was not named Finals MVP in 1981, but he was definitely the team's best player. Moreover, he received All-Star and All-NBA recognition for the second time in his career, and even led the league in Defensive Win Shares.

#2 Tim Duncan - 1998-99 NBA season

Duncan pictured in 2007.
Duncan pictured in 2007.

Tim Duncan's rookie season included All-Star and All-NBA first-team honors for the power forward. He posted 21.1 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game as a rookie, but his second year in the NBA was particularly stunning.

Duncan led the San Antonio Spurs to the best record in the league during the lockout-hit 1998-99 campaign, and averaged similar numbers to his rookie year (21 points, 11 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game).

In the NBA Playoffs, Duncan averaged 23 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks per game in 17 matches. He also led the Spurs to the NBA Finals, guided the franchise to its first NBA title, and took the first of his three Finals MVP trophies.

#1 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - 1970-71 NBA season

Kareem and Oscar Robertson.
Kareem and Oscar Robertson.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's basketball career might be the greatest in the sport's history, and he entered the NBA with huge impact. In only his second season, Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) led the Milwaukee Bucks to the NBA championship, took Finals MVP honors, and had also been named NBA MVP (only the third sophomore to win MVP, and the last one to date).

Kareem averaged a league-high 31.7 points, 16 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game during the regular season, which led the Milwaukee Bucks to an NBA-leading 66-16 record.

Abdul-Jabbar then averaged 26.6 points and 17 rebounds per game in the postseason, and put up 27 points and 18.5 rebounds in the Bucks' sweep over the Baltimore Bullets in the 1971 NBA Finals.

Also read: Top 5 active NBA players who went undrafted

Published 15 Apr 2021
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