Last week’s SCH Saturday Show was full of great conversation about who will assume the reins of a young Jazz team suddenly lacking top-flight veterans. Kyle Hunt continued that conversation in a Sunday post where he presented three theories.
Today, I’m going to attempt to answer a related but separate question – mostly because Benjamin Gaines dared me to.
I wasn’t in the Saturday Show, but Gaines was, and about a third of the way in he said that someone – “maybe Dan” – should do a post analyzing who were the five rookies rookies who truly led their teams on and off the court in year one..
The conversation came up in the context of talking about Trey Burke. KFAN producer and SCHSS host Austin Horton averred that the Jazz should just hand him the leadership role because that’s where the franchise is ultimately headed, and so instantly Andy Larsen and Ben jumped all over that, wondering aloud how a young man can command the attention of his peers when he himself is still learning & adjusting to the big boys’ game, and undoubtedly making mistakes in the process. They spent nearly 10 minutes in one of the most heated discussions in the history of the show, all around the question: Can rookies lead teams?
Austin’s case was built on names like Shaq and Dwight Howard. I think you can make the case about rookie leadership, but I think it’s extremely rare and those guys are not the right names to build the case. Shaq and Dwight were 20 and 18, respectively, when they joined the Magic and both were known more for being likeable goofballs than leaders. Shaq’s Magic included 7th-year veteran and future NBA coach Scott Skiles, who played more minutes than the Diesel and is one of the most serious men alive. (If you don’t believe me on that point, try interviewing him after a loss at ESA.) Rookie Dwight was a teenager and was surrounded by vets like Grant Hill, Hedo Turkoglu, Steve Francis, Tony Battie and Kelvin Cato. Howard trailed several of those guys in stats like points (where he was 3rd on the team) and field goals attempted (4th) that indicate how central you are to your team’s thinking.
Other names nominated for the list of top rookie generals included Yao Ming and Damian Lillard, but neither of those guys make my cut, for various reasons. So who are the five guys who have the greatest historical claim to have truly led their franchises from minute one?
I started by narrowing the list of NBA rookies down to those who had played 24 minutes per game or more. Sorry, but if you’re on the bench for at least half the game, you’re not your team’s leader. I also put a PER minimum of the league average (15.0) because, like Andy, I believe that you have to play at least average ball for anybody to listen to what you have to say, let alone follow your example. Then I considered contribution to team success on the floor — primarily through win shares, but I also looked at guys who had a lower WS number but were defensive stalwarts because WS doesn’t give appropriate credit to great defenders. In general, though, WS is a pretty good barometer of who mattered historically; a double digit WS usually means you were All-NBA, while something in the 8+ range meant you were an All-Star and 5+ means a solid contributor. If your win share was 3 or 4, you probably showed flashes of potential but weren’t leading anybody. Lillard’s was 5.8 last year, 4th among Blazers.
For guys who made it through all those cuts, I then looked at their team’s roster to see if they were truly the leader on and off the court, or if they were just a freakishly talented youngsters whose sager teammates were running the locker room and team bus.
Here’s what I came up with. (Note: I only looked at the three-point era, for a couple of reasons. First, modern basketball is much different than pre-merger NBA and the talent was less diluted then, too. Second, it’s easier to judge rookies who played during my lifetime because I really have no concept for the personalities of guys on those old rosters or who was the true leaderly presence on the 1968 Cincinnati Royals.)
5. Alonzo Mourning. Andy was right when he said, “I don’t know that you’ll find five.” I was really stretching by the time I got to these last two spots. Magic, Bird, Hakeem and Tim Duncan had amazing rookie seasons, but they joined teams that already belonged to their veteran predecessors. For the fifth spot, I went all the way back to 1992 Charlotte Hornets. Larry Johnson was in his second year, but if you ever watched those teams, you know that Johnson was the loose cannon and Zo was the team’s conscience right from the start. He was the team leader in PER as well as per-minute scoring, and he was also the defensive leader and ridiculously intense, even as a rook. You could argue that Dell Curry or Mugsy Bogues had leadership roles, too, so this isn’t a perfect selection – but like I said, it’s hard to get to five in this conversation.
4. Chris Paul. I struggled here, because the 2005-06 Hornets had David West as their vocal leader and arguably their best player. But West was only in his third year himself, and Paul led the team in starts, minutes played, win shares and PER. When you think about the fact that 19.9 possessions in an average Hornets game ended with a Chris Paul shot or assist, you realize he was the most important Hornet on the floor, and his personality off the floor makes it easy to believe he was at least co-leading that unit with West.
3. Mark Jackson. Jazz fans won’t love this one since Jax is persona non grata around these parts. But the truth is, he had it, right from the get-go. No modern-era rook has ever played more than Jackson’s 3,250 minutes, a team-high minute total he reached by starting all but two games for a playoff-bound Knick team. Sure they had Patrick Ewing and elder statesman Bill Cartwright, but Jax delivered a rookie record 868 assists, which means he ran the offense with CP3-like floor general aptitude despite it being his first season. Seriously, 868 as a rookie is a feat that may never be matched. He grabbed ROY honors that year, the only ROY despite being an 18th pick.
2. David Robinson. In basketball terms, The Admiral might be the best rookie ever in the modern era of basketball. He had the best rookie PER since Wilt, an unreal WS of 15.1, and elite out-of-the-gate defense that tells us his WS figure is probably low. At 24, he was already a grown-up by the time the Spurs put him to work, and his ’89 squad didn’t include a ton of natural leaders to steal the conch. Mo Cheeks could have been an important voice, but missed 32 games due to injury. Terry Cummings, in his 8th year, was probably something of a steadying presence, but I never remember him being a very vocal dude. This team really seems to have belonged to Robinson and fellow rook Sean Elliott.
1. Michael Jordan. MJ has a different brand of leadership, probably not the kind you write inspiring books about. Still, he was undoubtedly the Bulls’ leader starting in 1984. His rookie performance was nearly as historically good as Robinson’s (25.8 PER, 14 WS), but not quite. So why do I have him listed ahead of Robinson? First of all, because I’ve read Jordan Rules, so I know Jordan didn’t wait five minutes to start intimidating and challenging his mates. But also because there were NO other leaders on that Bulls team. The only real vet was Caldwell Jones, who missed half the season and scored as many points all year as Jordan might in a busy week. Orlando Woolridge was seriously probably the biggest threat to Jordan’s locker-room supremacy. Case closed.
Can Trey Burke lead the Jazz? If I struggled to find 5 guys since 1979 who had truly captained their teams as rookies, then Burke would have to be pretty special to do the same. The opportunity is there given the dearth of veterans, but he’ll have to measure up to some pretty impressive precedents.