Stop. I know what you’re thinking. Wasn’t Wes Unseld Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season? Why yes, he was … in 1968-69.
Of course, some stat heads might tell you that Unseld didn’t deserve the MVP that season. Among players who appeared in 70 or more NBA games in ’68-69, Unseld’s PER of 18.1 ranks 19th. And of those with a PER greater than 18, Unseld’s Win-Shares Per 48 Minutes (WS/48) was 10.8 and ranked seventh. The Baltimore Bullets did lead the NBA with 57 regular season wins, but were bounced by the New York Knicks in the first round of the playoffs.
Still, Big Wes got the accolades, and followed with a Hall of Fame career. Only he and Wilt Chamberlain have won both the ROY and MVP awards in the same season … and I’m betting it never happens again. But does that make Unseld the best rookie in franchise history? Not necessarily. Keep reading.
Over on SB Nation DC today, Jake Whitacre has a post that sparked my interest in this subject. Jake has a run-down of the best athletes over the age of 35 in D.C. sports history.
So, I turned toward the opposite end of the spectrum and wondered about some of the best, youngest players in Wizards franchise history. With the 19-year old John Wall set to turn 20 next Monday (September 6 — sheesh, the kid was only born in 1990?), I turned to the Basketball-Reference.com database and ran a search of all players 20 years or younger (age as of Feb. 1 in a given season, the criteria set up by BBR) who have played for the Packers/Zephyrs/Bullets/Wizards franchise.
The result only returned four players … bet you can guess two of them. Both Kwame Brown and Andray Blatche were 19 and 20 during each of their first two seasons with the Wizards.
John “Hot Plate” Williams turned 20 years old in the October before his rookie season with the Bullets in ’86-87. And he had better sub-age 20 stats (15.5 PER) than both Brown (11.2 PER) and Blatche (10.1 PER), and certainly better than the fourth 20-and-under player who has played for the franchise, Peter John Ramos (8.2 PER).
Williams made the 1987 NBA All-Rookie first team along with Brad Daugherty, Ron Harper, Chuck Person and Roy Tarpley. He had a better sophomore season and an even better third year in the league. But unfortunately for him, that was the best he’d ever see. Williams’ career fizzled out with injury issues, mostly a result of “Hot Plate” struggling with his weight.
If you bump the BBR criteria to 21 years of age (and younger), the list of names expands considerably to include: Chris Webber, Bobby Simmons, JaVale McGee, Rasheed Wallace, Juwan Howard, Jared Jeffries, Wes Matthews, Phil Chenier, Richard Hamilton, Kenny Green, Javaris Crittenton, Phil Walker, Jeff Slade, and of course, God Shammgod.
Furthering the discussion, and the title of this post, I ran a BBR search for all rookies, of any age, who have played for the Wizards franchise. The return is a list of 150 players. But some, such as Archbishop Carroll and University of Maryland product Cedric Lewis, only saw four minutes of action over three games during his ’95-96 rookie season with the Bullets (Lewis concluded four seasons with the Terps in 1991) — and that’s the only NBA action he ever saw.
So, to narrow it down a bit, I searched for all franchise rookies who appeared in 70 or more games during their first season. This whittled down the list to 38 players, leaving out the likes of Juwan Howard, Rasheed Wallace, Don MacLean, Brendan Haywood, Jerry Sloan, Kwame Brown, Kevin Grevey, Gheorghe Muresan, Rick Mahorn and Juan Dixon, among others; BUT, including the likes of Jarvis Hayes, Steve Blake, Richard Hamilton, Phil Chenier, Jeff Malone, Tom Gugliotta, Rod Thorn, Gus Johnson, Muggsy Bogues, Kevin Porter, Harvey Grant, Ledell Eackles, Jeff Ruland, Mitch Kupchak, Walt Bellamy, Earl Monroe, JaVale McGee, and of course, Wes Unseld.
Who had the best rookie season in franchise history (statistically speaking)? Let’s take a look at the top five in PER (who appeared in 70 or more games):
- Walt Bellamy (Chicago Packers, ’61-62) – 26.3 PER
- Earl Monroe (Baltimore Bullets, ’67-86) – 19.3
- Mitch Kupchak (Washington Bullets, ’76-77) – 19.3
- Jeff Ruland (Washington Bullets, ’81-82) – 18.8
- Wes Unseld (Baltimore Bullets, ’68-69) – 18.1
JaVale McGee would actually be sixth on this list with a rookie season PER of 17.0.
But, to have an additional perspective, and perhaps gauge which franchise rookie most contributed to winning, let’s check out the top five in WS/48 (basically the same five players, just a slightly different order):
- Walt Bellamy – 0.233 WS/48
- Mitch Kupchak – 0.188
- Wes Unseld – 0.175
- Jeff Ruland – 0.170
- Earl Monroe – 0.148
It becomes pretty clear that Walt Bellamy, in the franchise’s first season of existence, had the best rookie season in franchise history. He averaged an ungodly 31.6 points and 19 rebounds per game. Yeeeeaaa, John Wall ain’t touching those numbers.
I will add the caveat that today’s athlete is much, much better, and practices the game of basketball at a significantly greater scale. Also, Bellamy was 22 when he was a rookie … as was Kupchak and Unseld. Ruland and Monroe were 23 during their rookie years.
Heck, just achieving a 20-plus PER as a rookie is pretty hard. In fact, only 30 NBA rookies (again, among those who appeared in 70 or more games) have achieved a 20-plus PER, according to BBR’s database. Five of those rookies are still active: Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Chris Paul, Elton Brand and Yao Ming. Six did it at age 20: Shaq, Paul, Chris Webber, John Drew, Brand and Magic Johnson. And for the record, Bellamy’s 26.3 rookie year PER is tied with David Robinson for second best all-time to Chamberlain’s 28.0.
In conclusion, John Wall’s rookie season, statistically, will not go down as the best in Wizards franchise history. But it’s entirely possible that he could unseat Ruland or Kupchak amongst the franchise’s five best rookies seasons. And likely, it will only take Wall about a week to become the greatest number one overall draft pick in team history.