Top 25 rookie seasons in NBA history: No. 19 Maurice Stokes
The greatest rookie seasons in NBA history share a number of qualities, starting with individual statistical dominance. However, you can't overlook the context beyond the box score; initial expectations, team success, and overall legacy all matter.
While we wait for the 2019-20 season to resume, theScore's NBA editors have dusted off the record books to determine the top 25 rookie seasons in league history.
No. 19 in our series is former Rochester/Cincinnati Royals great Maurice Stokes. Catch up on previous posts in the series here.
Before the Association
Stokes was an unstoppable force at Saint Francis University, averaging 22 points and 24 boards over the course of his four-year collegiate career. The All-American brought the Red Flash into the national spotlight when he led the school to a fourth-place finish at the 1955 NIT Tournament and became the first player from a non-winning team to capture MVP honors.
Although rebounds weren't an official NCAA statistic until Stokes' sophomore season, he remains Saint Francis' all-time leader in boards and ranks second with 2,282 points. The school later retired Stokes' No. 26.
Stokes was selected second overall by the Rochester Royals (now known as the Sacramento Kings) in the 1955 NBA Draft. The notable players selected afterward include teammate and future Hall of Famer Jack Twyman and longtime Boston Celtics member K.C. Jones.
La Salle standout Tom Gola was also in Stokes' draft class and went to the Philadelphia Warriors as a territorial draft pick. During the same offseason, Royals big man Arnie Risen was dealt to the Celtics, paving the way for Stokes to become the club's starting center.
The former collegiate star had no trouble adjusting to the pro game, as he often outmatched opponents with his combination of size, strength, and quickness. Stokes opened his NBA career with an all-around masterpiece, posting 32 points, 20 rebounds, and eight dimes in his debut.
He finished his 1955-56 All-Star campaign atop the Association in rebounding (16.3 boards per game) and defensive win shares (5.9) while also placing in the league's top 10 in scoring (16.8) and assists (4.9). Stokes capped his first season with Rookie of the Year honors and an All-NBA second-team selection.
Rochester won two more games than the season prior but missed the playoffs by virtue of its last-place finish in the Western Division. The Royals' 31-41 mark left them two games back of the final playoff spot, which is remarkable considering the roster featured seven rookies and first-year head coach Bobby Wanzer was still playing 27.5 minutes per contest.
Stokes' ability to grab-and-go off missed shots helped Rochester transition from the Association's slowest offense to the league's second-fastest pace. The Royals also made the jump on the opposite end, registering the NBA's top defensive rating at 87.9 points per 100 possessions.
Stokes continued his elite performance over the next two campaigns, earning All-Star and All-NBA second-team honors in each of those seasons. In 1956-57, he set a single-season record with 1,256 total rebounds. The following year, Stokes had an Association-leading nine triple-doubles and finished second in rebounding (18.1 boards per contest) and third in assists (6.4).
Despite his outstanding body of work, the club failed to win a postseason game during Stokes' three-year tenure. In the 1957-58 regular-season finale, the Pittsburgh native was knocked unconscious after colliding with an opposing player and striking his head on the floor. Although Stokes participated in a playoff game just three days later in Detroit, he collapsed on the team's flight back to Cincinnati and later went into a coma at the hospital.
Doctors diagnosed Stokes with post-traumatic encephalopathy. The severe brain injury left him permanently paralyzed. In the years that followed, Twyman became Stokes' legal guardian and took care of his friend until the latter's death in 1970. Stokes' No. 12 was retired by the Kings and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004. Nine years later, the NBA established the Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year Award, which annually recognizes the league's most ideal teammate.
Come back on Monday to see who came in at No. 18 in theScore's Top 25 Rookie Seasons series.
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