Some of the greatest players in Lakers history started their careers with the team: Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and George Mikan. Today, I’ll be determining which Lakers rookie was the best. Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma are two of the team’s current rookies, and most of the team’s rooks in recent years haven’t been quite as explosive as fans would like, so we’re going fairly old school here.
The downside to having some of the players from the 60s, 70s, and even the 80s (or the 40s and 50s in Mikan’s case) is the fact that the NBA just didn’t record quite as many stats then. However, stats like points, assists, free throw percentages, and total field goal percentages should be plenty to determine who is the best Lakers rookie.
Taking it back to the 40s, we’ll start with George Mikan’s rookie season in 1948. The NBA didn’t even exist just yet, and the Lakers certainly weren’t in Los Angeles. He hit 41.6 percent of his shots from the field. Mikan shot 77.2 percent from the free throw line while averaging 28.3 points per game. Those are some big numbers for a rookie but you also have to consider who he was playing against. As far as I can tell, there wasn’t a whole lot of competition back in those days and only 12 teams existed in the BAA.
Ten years later, Elgin Baylor joined the Lakers. They were still two years away from the move to LA. His rookie season in 1958 showed off his ability to grab rebounds with an average of 15 total rebounds per game. He averaged 24.9 PPG and shot 40.8 percent from the field and 77.7 percent from the line. This is a solid rookie effort from one of the Lakers greats, soon to be honored with a statue outside of Staples Center. He had some strong competition, too, which mostly came from the Boston Celtics. During that season they had Bill Russell and Bob Cousy on the team. With Bill Russell, the Celtics rarely lost and they swept the Lakers in the Finals. Baylor certainly had his work cut out for him as a rookie.
Jerry West joined the Lakers in 1961. Having him and Baylor on the same team was certainly a plus, but West didn’t put up quite as good of numbers. However, at the point guard position, he was unlikely to score quite as much as a small forward, anyway. He averaged 17.6 PPG and 4.2 APG. His free throw percentage wasn’t stellar at 66.6 percent, but thankfully he improved on that in subsequent seasons. It wasn’t until his sophomore season that West really broke out of his shell. As we know, rookies can sometimes get off to a slow start.
Magic Johnson’s rookie season landed in the 79-80 season. The team already had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Norm Nixon, Jamaal Wilkes, and Michael Cooper but Magic managed to impress on the court. He was a passer like the Lakers hadn’t quite seen before. In his first season, he averaged 7.3 APG and added 18.0 PPG. Even with how great his passing was, he had an uncanny ability to score, too. He shot over 50 percent(53 percent to be exact) from the field and 81 percent from the free throw line. He sure could fill out the stat sheet.
James Worthy joined just a few seasons after Magic. In 1982, the Lakers looked very promising. In the finals, however, the duo of Moses Malone and Julius Erving proved to be too much for the Lakers to handle. Before the loss, though, Worthy put together a decent rookie season. He shot 57.9 percent from the field, which is the highest of all of the rookies so far. Keep in mind, though, that this Lakers team already had Kareem and Magic on it. Worthy averaged 13.4 PPG and had some ups and downs as the majority of rookies do. Overall, he was certainly an important contributor to the team.
Last, but not least, Kobe Bryant entered the league in 1996. He came straight from high school, so there was bound to be an adjustment period. He scored zero points in his very first game, so it wasn’t the best first impression. As all Lakers fans know, though, that wasn’t a lasting impression. By the end of his rookie season, Kobe averaged 7.6 PPG and only played about 15 minutes each game. His numbers were by no means stellar, but thankfully his rookie season led to his crazy work ethic and his constant need to improve on the court.
With all of these players in mind, Elgin Baylor and Magic Johnson come out on top. So, how does one choose between the two? It’s certainly a tough choice, but Magic brought something to the table that propelled the Lakers forward. Baylor had the unfortunate timing of playing during the Bill Russell reign. Magic’s rivalry with Bird might not have been the first Lakers/Celtics rivalry, but it’s an extremely memorable one.
Winner: Magic Johnson