Basketball fans using live dealer roulette in New Jersey may have noticed that it has been almost a decade since the last rookie featured in the annual NBA All-Star Game. That was Clippers star Blake Griffin, who as a 22-year-old, went on to win the NBA Slam Dunk Contest during the same weekend in 2011.
Earning a place in the showpiece match has proved to be particularly challenging for players new to the league during the last few years, but the stats show that it remains a rare feat for a rookie to become an All-Star immediately. In NBA history, only 45 players have earned the honor and the last ten players to do so go way back to the mid-1980s.
The fact that there hasn’t been a standout rookie for nine years does not necessarily mean the caliber of players entering the league has regressed. A look back at some of the players who have made it shows that becoming an All-Star requires an excellent all-round season and numerous accolades.
Like Griffin, arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan was able to deliver a memorable first campaign in the league way back in 1985. The then 21-year-old broke onto the scene with the Chicago Bulls, showcasing his prodigious talent with an average of 28.2 points per game, which helped him to the Rookie of the Year award and earned “Air Jordan” a spot in the All-Star Game.
The vast majority of players that burst onto the scene go on to rack up numerous All-Star appearances. Grant Hill, for example, starred as a rookie in 1995 but went on to play a further six games during his illustrious career. In his debut year, Hill logged an average of nearly 20 points per game in addition to 6.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists. He also scored a total of more than 1000 points, the first Detroit Pistons player to do so as a rookie since Isiah Thomas 13 years earlier.
Chinese star Yao Ming had a similarly explosive start to life in the NBA as he notched an average of 8.2 rounds, 1.8 blocks, and 13.5 points with the Houston Rockets during the 2002/03 campaign. His dominance and popularity worldwide saw him usurp Shaquille O’Neal as the starting center for the Western Conference, and he only finished behind Kobe Bryant in All-Star voting that year.
Griffin also dominated during his debut season in 2011 and finished tenth in MVP voting for the year after his return of 22.5 points and 12.1 rebounds per game. It is perhaps surprising that another rookie has not taken the league by storm in a similar way since then, but it appears to be a statistical anomaly rather than a clear trend. There is likely to be a rookie that will break through in a similar way to Jordan in the near future. During the 1984/85 season, for example, two newbies became All-Stars with the Rocket’s Hakeem Olajuwon lining up alongside Jordan in the big game.
Higher skill threshold?
With that said, only two players, Ming and Griffin, have been rookie All-Stars in the 21st century. During the 1950s and 1960s, several new players went on to become All-Stars in their debut campaigns. That may suggest that the skill threshold has increased during the last 20 years as the league matured, and competing in professional sport became tougher. More established players are more likely to feature now than players fresh from college who may need a year or two to settle in.
The draft class in 2018 was particularly noteworthy as it was the first time that the top five rookies had delivered a win share as high as those from the 1980s and 1990s. Statistically, the rookies in 2018 were the “best in years,” but neither Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr, or Trae Young were able to get a spot on the All-Star team that year.
Their returns do suggest that it is not the quality of rookies that is the issue though and that there should be a draft class that breaks through into the showpiece contest sooner rather than later. The NBA is long overdue for a rookie that can deliver on the biggest stage, push their team to greater heights, and earn individual accolades that could potentially make them an all-timer like Jordan.