Has an NBA rookie Ever Won MVP? Yep, twice. Wes Unseld and Wilt Chamberlain both won the league MVP in their rookie seasons. Wilt Chamberlain won the 1959-60 NBA MVP in his rookie season. Wes Unseld followed up 10 years later, winning the 1968-69 NBA MVP in his rookie season.
So yeah, that’s the answer. But it’s only the short answer…
Thing is, there is a little bit of a gotcha with this question. The NBA gives out multiple MVP awards each year, including a league MVP, a Finals MVP and an All-Star Game MVP. It’s also worth noting that the ABA awarded an MVP in each of the 10 years before it merged with the NBA in 1976. We’ll focus on the NBA league MVP first, but I’ll also cover the finals MVP, the All-Star MVP and the ABA MVP awards later in this article.
What is the NBA League MVP Award?
The NBA has awarded the league MVP and its accompanying Maurice Podoloff trophy, every year since the 1955-56 season (the NBA started in 1946). The first recipient of the NBA league MVP award was Bob Pettit of the then St. Louis Hawks.
How is the NBA league MVP Chosen?
Until 1979, the league MVP was voted on by NBA players. Since 1980, the award has been voted on by a panel of NBA writers and broadcasters. Each voter ranks their top 5 nominees for the award. These results are then tallied by rank. 10 points are awarded for a first place selection, 7 points for 2nd place, 5 votes for 3rd, 3 for 4th and 1 for 5th. Starting in 2010, a vote was given up to fan polling via online voting.
How Difficult is it to Win the NBA League MVP as a Rookie?
It’s no mistake that the feat has only occurred twice in NBA history. One of the things I picked up on early in the development of my own basketball obsession was just how much rookies suck.
Where I once may have naively expected that a great player would be great from the start, I now understand that this is rarely the case. NBA players are all very very good. In order to stand out, you need to be better. So even with a ton of talent, basketball greatness is often a slow grind.
The league MVP is also something of a subjective award. Winning isn’t a matter of simply banging out unbelievable stats (though it does help). You also need to present a compelling story to win over the current panel of dedicated media personnel. At the time that Wes and Wilt won their MVP’s (pre-1980), voting fell to the players, so they had to win over a large group of their peers. Imagine rolling into your work, fresh out of college, and trying to convince all of your coworkers that you’re the best at your job.
So yeah, it is not very common for a rookie to win the NBA MVP. It’s actually a little mind blowing that it’s ever happened. To get an idea of how amazing this achievement is, let’s take a closer look at the two times it has occurred. In case you were not aware, this is the stuff of legend. You’ve probably heard the name Chamberlain, maybe Unseld, but do you might not know just how epic they were as players.
Wilt Chamberlain’s Rookie Season
The first NBA player to win MVP in their rookie season was Wilt Chamberlain in 1959 with the then Philadelphia Warriors. That year, Wilt also became the first rookie to lead the league in scoring and the first rookie to lead the league in rebounds. He averaged 37 points and 27 rebounds per game for the season.
Even his insane rookie numbers barely do justice to just how dominant a figure Wilt Chamberlain was in the league. In his first ever professional game, Chamberlain ran 43 points and 28 rebounds against the New York Knicks. This is a record NBA debut and it is incredible.
Not to take anything away from Chamberlain’s incredible skill and dominant physicality, but I think it’s fair to mention a couple of advantages he had going into the league.
Wilt started his career with the Harlem Globetrotters. While he was technically a rookie, he had the advantage of being a little bit older and a little wiser than the average rookie, not to mention having already faced some of the best players in the league on the court.
Also, though I occasionally hear people argue otherwise, it’s safe to say that the broader skill level in the NBA was lower in the 50’s. These were still relatively early days in pro sports. I’m not suggesting these guys were pushovers by any means, they were tough as hell by all accounts, but we’ve had 50 years to learn how to tune skills, strategy and fitness levels. You don’t see outliers quite like Wilt anymore.
Certainly Wilt was an incredible player in any surroundings. There are reliable accounts that he was able to push Magic around a little, even into his 40’s. And you can see Wilts utter dominance back off through his career as presumably the field of play became a bit more challenging.
Wilt Chamberlain Rookie Highlights
It’s tough to get ahold of good footage of Chamberlain’s inaugural season, but there are some good clips in here…
Wes Unseld’s Rookie Season
And then there was the great Wes Unseld. Wes was the second and final rookie to win the NBA league MVP. As a counter to Wilt’s domination and flare, Unseld was a little more subdued. At 6’7″ on a low gravity day, he remains the shortest NBA center of all time. Wes took the MVP in his 1968-69 debut season with the Baltimore bullets. He did so averaging 13.8 points, 18.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game. That’s less than half of Wilt’s inaugural point average.
The numbers are a bit misleading. Unseld immediately developed a reputation as an intimidating defensive force and an unselfish and precise passer. The NBA didn’t start recording blocks or steals until 1973, so that’s probably part of the story. It also helps to explain just how impactful he was when you acknowledge that he took the Bullets, a team that had gone 36-46 in the previous season to 57 wins in the 68-69 season.
Wes passed in June of 2020. While he may be a bit less of a household name than Chamberlain, he left no less formidable a legacy. As a player, Unseld took the Bullets to 4 playoff appearances, including a 1978 championship win over the Supersonics. He averaged a double-double in points and rebounds over his career before Retiring in 1981. After 13 years with the Bullets in their various mutations he transitioned into the back office where over the years he moved from Vice President to Head Coach to General Manager until stepping back in 2004. His son, Wes Unseld, Jr. is the current Head Coach of the team, now known as the Washington Nationals.
Good footage and highlights reels from this era are still tough to come by, though a little easier than Chamberlain’s debut the decade earlier. This is a decent view of Unseld in action through the 70’s.
Will a Rookie Ever Win NBA MVP Again?
Never say never. The trick with the MVP award is that it is intended to reflect a player’s value. This means that, as was the case with Unseld, it’s not all about stats and can wind up being quite subjective. You need to pull your team, but you also need to pull the hearts and minds of the media.
I’d argue it will happen again eventually, just a matter of time. It may even be a little easier in the modern era where instead of convincing your peers, you just need to work a narrative that will get the media on your side.
Case in point, in the 2015-16 season Stephen Curry became the first and only player to win the NBA league MVP by unanimous decision. If the right media darling were to slide in and carry a team with the right flare, they could easily become the third man on this list.
The NBA Finals MVP Award
Since the close of the 1968-69 season, the NBA has also awarded an NBA finals MVP award. The first recipient was Jerry West in 1969, notably the only recipient of the award to have played for the losing team.
The recipient of the NBA Finals MVP Award is determined via a vote involving 11 members of the NBA media. Since 2005 the winner has received the Bill Russell Trophy.
Has a Rookie ever Won the NBA Finals MVP Award?
Yes, Magic Johnson took the NBA Finals MVP award in his 1979-80 rookie season with an absolute legend of a finals performance. In the 1980 NBA finals, a fresh young Magic and Kareem with the Lakers took down Dr J. and the 76ers in 6 games.
The 32 year old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won league MVP that season. He was also absolutely dominant in the final series. However, he went down to an ankle injury in Game 5. While he returned to play the 4th quarter of game 5 on that injured ankle, after leaving the subject to speculation right up to game day, he ultimately sat out of game 6. And so, when the series came down to the 20 year old Magic, he closed out the season in epic fashion with a monster 42 points, 15 rebounds and 7 assists.
The NBA All-Star Game MVP Award
There’s also an NBA All-Star game MVP. While it’s maybe the least prominent of the 3 main MVP awards, it is actually the oldest of the awards.
Technically, the first NBA All-Star MVP went to George Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers. But when the award was created in 1953, it was retroactively awarded for the previous two years of the existence of the NBA All-Star game. Those awards went to Paul Arizin of the Philadelphia Warriors for the 1952 game and Charles Macauley of the Boston Celtics for the 1951 game. This effectively makes Charles Macauley the first recipient of the NBA All-Star Game MVP award.
In 2020 the award was officially named the NBA All-Star Kobe Bryant MVP Award in honor of the Lakers superstar who, along with 8 others, lost his life in a helicopter accident only weeks before the 2020 All-Star Game. The award was then updated in 2022 to give it a “new silhouette worthy of being named ‘The Kobe Bryant Trophy’”, according to the artist Victor Solomon who assisted in the redesign.
Has a Rookie Ever Won the NBA All-Star MVP?
Yes, and this question points to an awesome little bit of NBA statistics.
Between 1959 and 1961 a rookie won the NBA All-Star Game MVP Award every year. In 1959 Elgin Baylor won the NBA All-Star MVP award in his rookie season with the Minneapolis Lakers. In 1960 Wilt Chamberlain took the All-Star MVP as a rookie with the Philadelphia Warriors. In 1961, Oscar Robertson won the NBA All-Star Game MVP in his rookie season with the Cincinnati Royals.
Three of the greatest players in early NBA history, winning the All-Star Game MVP in consecutive rookie years. And a rookie hasn’t taken this award since.
The ABA MVP Award
Still not tired of basketball knowledge?
The ABA also awarded a league MVP throughout its existence from 1967-1976.
Did a Rookie Ever Win the ABA MVP?
The ABA awarded the MVP to two rookies during its existence, Spencer Haywood in his 1969-70 debut season with the Denver Rockets, and Artis Gilmore with his 1971-72 debut with the Kentucky Colonels.
Like many hoops questions, it actually becomes surprisingly complicated when you start looking into if an NBA rookie has ever won MVP.
Sure, Wes Unseld and Wilt Chamberlain both won MVP in their rookie seasons, technically. But there are a host of MVP awards in the NBA, and even the concept of a ‘rookie’ season can present some issues.