Luka Doncic’s first-round playoff performance against the heavily-favored Clippers garnered massive praise from NBA fans and media members. It’s exciting how good he already is at just 21 years old. One can only imagine the heights that he can reach in the league.
Many other players throughout NBA history also had similar or better success in their sophomore campaigns. While Doncic may be the most recent example, let’s not appoint him the greatest second-year player of all time just yet.
Recency bias is real and gets the best of all of everyone at times, so to properly put Doncic’s incredible season into perspective, here are the top-10 sophomore seasons in NBA history. Players are differentiated by a combination of their statistics, accolades and team success. Age and how significantly a player improved from year one to year two don’t matter.
NOTE: Players like Geroge Mikan and Paul Arizin should probably be on this list based on statistics and accolades, but the NBA was in its infancy back then and it’s unfair to compare that era to any that came after because of rule changes and the league’s overall construction and talent.
Honorable Mention: Michael Jordan set the single-game playoff scoring record in his second season with 63 points in a first-round series against the 67-win Celtics, but a foot injury limited him to just 18 games in the regular season. He would surely have made this list if healthy because he averaged 22.7 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.2 blocks per game.
10. Bob McAdoo (1973-1974)
Buffalo’s Bob McAdoo was one of the premier NBA players during the 1970s. His solid 18 points per game as a rookie put him on the map, but he became a completely different — and more dominant — player in his sophomore season.
The 22-year-old center led the league in scoring (30.6) and field goal percentage (54.7%), according to basketball-reference. He consistently displayed superior athleticism and intensity, which allowed him to develop into a fearsome interior presence on both ends as he grabbed 15.1 rebounds and blocked 3.3 shots per game.
McAdoo’s improvement helped double the Braves’ win total from the previous season, winning 42 games and making the playoffs. The team lost in six games in the first round to the eventual champion Celtics, but McAdoo remained a dominant force even in the postseason.
He earned Second-Team All-NBA and All-Star honors for his play this season, as well as coming in second behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in MVP voting.
9. LeBron James (2004-2005)
LeBron James shined as a rookie after being one of the most hyped players ever to enter the NBA, yet he somehow exceeded expectations again in his sophomore campaign. James, just 20 years old, improved his numbers across the board and averaged 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 2.2 steals per game on 47.2% shooting.
No one expected a kid straight out of high school to develop into a superstar before he was even allowed to buy a beer. But he did, and he instantly became one of the game’s biggest stars and best players. The only knocks on him at this point in his career were his long-range shooting — he increased his 3-point percentage to a respectable 35.1% — and his lack of team success.
People didn’t blame James for losing games, though, because his teammates were either mediocre or flat-out terrible. He did lead them to a solid 30-20 record at the All-Star break, but the team fell apart afterward and finished with 42 wins, not enough to make the playoffs.
James was a Second-Team All-NBA selection, and All-Star and finished sixth in MVP voting this season. He also led the league in minutes per game (42.4) and Offensive Box Plus/Minus (7.0).
8. Luka Doncic (2019-2020)
What a magical year it was for Luka Doncic. The reigning Rookie of the Year surpassed almost every analyst’s expectations and developed into one of the top-10 players in the NBA, showcasing superior passing, finishing and leadership skills at just 21 years old.
His mesmerizing game-winner against the Clippers in the playoffs exemplified the stellar year Doncic had. He averaged 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game while tallying a league-leading 17 triple-doubles in just 61 games. He stepped his game up even more in the playoffs, averaging 31 points per game, against an L.A. bunch with several formidable perimeter defenders. He’ll likely make an All-NBA team soon.
The craziest accomplishment of all is that Doncic led the Mavericks to the best Offensive Rating in NBA history (116.7). They won just 43 games, but it’s mind-boggling to imagine what this young superstar can accomplish.
7. Rick Barry (1966-1967)
Rick Barry came into the league as a pure scorer. Few players before him displayed a comparable inside-out offensive game. In his second season, though, Barry took his skills to the next level and led the NBA in scoring at 35.4 points per game.
He did take an absurd 28.7 shots per game and an even more outrageous 32.6 shots per contest in the playoffs, but the Warriors needed him to be that type of guy. His teammates may not have liked him, yet he carried the team to 44 wins and to the Finals.
The team lost to arguably the best team of all-time to that point, Wilt Chamberlain’s 68-win 76ers, but Barry proved he was one of the game’s top stars by earning First-Team All-NBA and All-Star honors while finishing fifth in MVP voting. Unfortunately for the NBA, Barry played the next four seasons of his career in the ABA.
6. Larry Bird (1980-1981)
Larry Bird didn’t have had the most eye-popping statistical sophomore season ever. He averaged 21.2 points, 10.9 rebounds, 5.5 assists and two steals per game, but his ability to lead a 62-win championship team sets him apart.
Bird ascended to the top of the NBA this season, earning First-Team All-NBA honors and finishing second in MVP voting. He displayed the Alpha-dog mentality needed to get his team over the hump while proving himself to be a clutch and unselfish player. His numbers increased across the board in the playoffs, and although the Finals MVP went to Cedric Maxwell instead, Bird was clearly the most important player for the Celtics.
Maybe the most surprising statistic from this season is that Bird led the league in Defensive Win Shares (6.1). Curiously, he didn’t make an All-Defensive team (which he did in the next few seasons).
5. Tim Duncan (1998-1999)
Tim Duncan’s sophomore season almost didn’t happen because of a lockout, but the league eventually figured things out and held a 50-game season. Duncan put up nearly identical numbers to his rookie season (21.7 points, 11.4 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game), which caused confusion as to why the former No.1 pick hadn’t built upon his already strong skill set.
His critics were proven wrong when Duncan carried his aging Spurs squad to an NBA championship and won Finals MVP. He slightly increased his overall numbers in 17 playoff games and was dominant on both ends. He even finished the season leading the league in Defensive Win Shares (4.7).
After the Spurs won a league-leading 37 games, Duncan was named to the All-NBA and All-Defensive First-Teams, setting the stage for another incredible 15 seasons to follow.
4. Oscar Robertson (1961-1962)
After nearly accomplishing the feat as a rookie, Oscar Robertson did what was thought to be impossible as a sophomore; he averaged a triple-double for an entire season. He was just 23 years old and averaged an absurd 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and a league-leading 11.4 assists per game.
It was a landmark season not only for Robertson but for the entire league as well. Several players across the NBA put together legendary campaigns, causing Robertson to finish just third in MVP voting. He was as deserving as anyone and carried his team to 43 wins, but players voted on the award back then so it wasn’t exactly unbiased.
Robertson was an All-Star and First-Team All-NBA member for his efforts. He’d never again average a triple-double, but his record stood for 55 years until Russell Westbrook did so in 2016-2017.
3. Bill Russell (1957-1958)
Bill Russell was an all-time great from the moment he stepped on an NBA-court. He was instantly the league’s best defender and rebounder, and his team won the title in his rookie season. In his second year, though, Russell earned the respect of his peers and won MVP.
He averaged 16.6 points and a league-best 22.7 rebounds, but it was his defense that made him legendary. They unfortunately didn’t track traditional defensive statistics back then (his numbers would be astronomical). The only number you can point to in Defensive Win Shares, which he led the league in during many seasons in addition to this one (7.7).
The funny thing is that this season was one of only two in Russell’s career that he didn’t win a championship. His Celtics won a league-leading 49 games in the regular season but lost the NBA Finals in six games. He won eight straight after this season, so let’s chalk this loss up to bad timing.
2. Wilt Chamberlain (1960-1961)
Wilt Chamberlain followed up his MVP rookie season with a slightly better campaign in his second year. He led the league in scoring (38.4), rebounding (27.2), field goal percentage (50.9%) and minutes (47.8), once again proving he was a physical freak of nature and the statistical marvel of the NBA.
It’s hard to compare Chamberlain’s season to anyone else’s because the numbers are so profound that it’s difficult to not make him the top sophomore ever. The arguments against him are that he didn’t win MVP — which was partly because the players in the league didn’t like him — and that his team won just 46 games and was swept in the first round. While that sounds like a huge letdown, Chamberlain carried his team in that series and was the reason those three games were close. His supporting cast was horrid shooting the ball despite Chamberlain continuing his statistical dominance.
He wasn’t a good teammate and took a ton of shots, but you can’t ignore Chamberlain’s extreme production at such a young age. He predictably made First-Team All-NBA but finished just fourth in MVP voting.
1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1970-1971)
Taking all factors into account, Abdul-Jabbar clearly had the best sophomore season of all-time. He averaged a league-best 31.7 points per game in addition to 16 rebounds while shooting 57.7% from the field in all 82 games, good enough to win MVP. The Bucks won 66 games, easily won the Finals and Abdul-Jabbar was the obvious Finals MVP. He was also named First-Team All-NBA and Second-Team All-Defense.
That should be enough explanation right there, but if you’re still not satisfied, he also led the NBA in PER, Offensive Win Shares, Defensive Win Shares and Win Shares Per 48 Minutes. Except for Defensive Win Shares, he achieved the same in the playoffs.
Abdul-Jabbar arguably peaked in his sophomore season in terms of individual skill coupled with team success. It’s hard to fathom a player coming out of college today and accomplishing all this in his second season, but Abdul-Jabbar made it a reality.
He represented the next era of basketball and dominated all the greats who came before him en route to a title. It’s a shame he couldn’t win another in Milwaukee, but his legacy from this season will never be forgotten.