Great players are often remembered throughout NBA history because of their achievements individually and as part of a team. They are also remembered for their impact on the NBA floor, the moment they step foot on a professional court. That is why the majority of the greatest players of all time were immediately great in their rookie season.
But that doesn’t automatically mean that every great player has won the Rookie of the Year Award. As a matter of fact, there have been legends and first-ballot Hall of Famers that never managed to capture the Rookie of the Year Award. In order to determine who the greatest player without a ROY Award is, it is time to rank the ten greatest in NBA history.
10. John Stockton
Team: Utah Jazz
Stockton is recognized as arguably the best pure point guard in NBA history since he led the NBA in assists in 9 different NBA seasons and made 11 All-Star teams total. Stockton also formed part of one of the best duos ever alongside Karl Malone and made two NBA Finals appearances with him.
But John Stockton was not great as a rookie. He averaged 5.6 PPG and 5.1 APG while only starting 5 games out of 82 played. MJ won the ROY Award the same season, beating out some other all-time great players on this list as well. Stockton did not become a star until his 4th season, averaging 14.7 PPG and 13.8 APG in his breakout year.
9. Julius Erving
Team: Philadelphia 76ers
Erving was already a professional basketball player in his NBA rookie season since he played 5 seasons in the ABA to start his career. Erving still had a sensational “rookie” campaign, averaging 21.6 PPG and 8.5 RPG while bringing the high-flying style of play that made him so popular in the ABA.
Nonetheless, Erving missed out on the ROY Award in 1976-1977 to Adrian Dantley who put up 20.3 PPG and 7.6 RPG in a fantastic rookie campaign with the Buffalo Braves.
8. Isiah Thomas
Team: Detroit Pistons
Thomas is one of the best point guards ever and one of the most competitive forces as a little man that we have ever seen. Thomas won back to back NBA titles with the Pistons, including one Finals MVP and is the leader of the Bad Boy Pistons Dynasty that is a part of NBA lore.
Thomas had an exceptional rookie season, averaging 17.0 PPG and 7.8 APG, but lost out to Buck Williams who put up 15.5 PPG and 12.3 RPG while leading his team to a winning record in the league.
7. Scottie Pippen
Team: Chicago Bulls
Scottie Pippen might be the most underrated player in NBA history because he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for winning 6 titles with the Chicago Bulls alongside Michael Jordan. While any player in history would be belittled when compared to MJ, Pippen was an all-time great player and Hall of Famer who is one of the best small forwards ever.
But his rookie season was forgettable, as Pippen only averaged 7.9 PPG and lost out the ROY Award to Mark Jackson who put up 13.6 PPG and 10.6 PPG for the New York Knicks.
6. Charles Barkley
Team: Philadelphia 76ers
Barkley impressed in his rookie season, averaging 14.0 PPG and 8.6 RPG while playing 82 games. Barkley arrived like a force of nature, despite being an undersized power forward, and gave the Sixers hope that one day he will be a superstar for them. He ended up doing that, but he still didn’t manage to win the Rookie of the Year Award.
Barkley still went down as a Hall of Fame player with exceptional skills, but he, unfortunately, shares the same rookie season as Michael Jordan and failed to compare to Jordan’s greatness in his rookie season.
5. Karl Malone
Team: Utah Jazz
The Mailman did not win Rookie of the Year, despite putting up great numbers and putting the league on notice that he will be coming for everyone on short notice. Malone made his mark in the NBA with his 14.9 PPG and 8.9 RPG numbers but fell short to the great Patrick Ewing who went number one in the Draft and averaged 20.0 PPG and 9.0 RPG.
Malone retired with 2 NBA Finals appearances, 14 All-Star Teams, and 2 MVP Awards while being recognized as a top-three power forward of all time.
4. Hakeem Olajuwon
Team: Houston Rockets
Only two words can describe why Hakeem Olajuwon didn’t win the Rookie of the Year, Michael Jordan. MJ had a tremendous rookie season and this overshadowed what Hakeem did for the Rockets. Hakeem was no slouch though, putting up 20.6 PPG and 11.9 RPG and also earning a spot as one of the best big men in the league immediately.
“The Dream” is recognized as a top-five center ever, and until today, players flock to learn from him how to score the ball in the paint. He is fourth on this list of all-time great players behind the great Bill Russell.
3. Bill Russell
Team: Boston Celtics
Russell is recognized as the greatest winner in NBA history. But he was not recognized as the greatest rookie during his rookie season, losing the ROY Award to another Boston Celtic. Russell had a dominant rookie season, averaging 14.7 PPG and 19.6 RPG, but it was not enough to earn him the votes to usurp his own teammate Tom Heinsohn who played 30 more games than Russel and averaged 16.2 PPG and 9.8 RPG.
Russell has a case for being the greatest center ever, and it is certain he would rather have 11 rings that recognition for a dominant rookie year. Just like Bill Russell, two more all-time greats failed to win the Rookie of the Year Award.
2. Magic Johnson
Team: Los Angeles Lakers
It is absolutely astonishing that a player as dominant as Magic Johnson did not win Rookie of the Year. His numbers were extraordinary, his impact was undeniable, and he even won an NBA title (and Finals MVP) in his legendary rookie year. It’s unfathomable until you consider Larry Bird shared the same rookie season. Bird is the only reason Magic didn’t win because he was simply near perfection all year.
The legendary point guard is the second greatest player to never win ROY, trailing a fellow Laker legend named Kobe Bryant.
1. Kobe Bryant
Team: Los Angeles Lakers
Clearly one of the best players ever, Kobe Bryant famously had a rough rookie season. He was extremely raw, very thin, and looked like he needed a bit of time before he would arrive on the scene. Many don’t look at Kobe’s first few years of his career, because he literally became a dominant player after year three. His rookie season was forgettable, averaging 7.6 PPG in only 15.5 MPG.
Kobe Bryant had the skills to take over the league, but he did not show it immediately. As the second greatest shooting guard ever and one of the ten best to have ever played, Kobe is also the best player ever to not win a Rookie of the Year Award.