NBA Study: Has Victor Wembanyama’s rookie year lived up to the hype?

Victor Wembanyam, San Antonio Spurs.

Victor Wembanyam, San Antonio Spurs. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports.

Key Highlights:

  • It is extremely difficult to compare players from different eras. The best way of doing so (without hundreds of hours of research) is to look at one-number metrics
  • Wembanyama’s rookie EPM, BPM, and DPM is right up there with almost any rookie season we looked at
  • Victor Wembanyama, Nikola Jokic, Tim Duncan, Chris Paul, Paul Pierce, and Andrei Kirilenko appear to be the best rookies since 1996-97

At this point of the year, everyone is well aware of Victor Wembanyama’s brilliance. There are no Shaquille O’Neal memes to be shared. We are all very familiar with his game.

So, we won’t bore you with another article about his insane rim gravity, mind-blowing paint protection, or advanced passing vision (but if you want that, check out the article our Jackson Frank wrote on him). We won’t even try to fool you into thinking that anyone, even Chet Holmgren, has a chance of beating him in the Rookie of the Year race.

Instead, we’re going to use this edition of NBA Study to see how Wembanyama’s rookie year stacks up in the annals of NBA history (with the help of familiar face @SravanNBA). So, without further ado, let the games begin.

Our Process

For many reasons, it is immensely difficult to compare players from different eras. Chief among those challenges is the fact that we don’t have the same data for all these eras. Play-by-play data wasn’t available until the 1996-97 season, and the now widely-cited tracking data wasn’t in the public realm until the 2013-14 season.

A perfect (or, at least, near perfect) study on rookie seasons would take hours of research. And while such an effort would probably be worthwhile, you likely don’t feel like waiting around for such an endeavor to take place.

So, what we’ll do in place of this type of examination is look at a couple of all-in-one metrics (Box Plus-Minus, Win Shares per 48 minutes, and Darko Plus-Minus) to try and see who owns the best rookie season since 1996-97. The reason we chose this date is that this is the furthest back Darko Plus-Minus (DPM) – the most nuanced of the metrics we’ll be using – extends.

We use these metrics because they are the best way to swiftly appropriate a player’s contributions to their teams. After all, the best rookies aren’t the ones who post gaudy stat lines. They are the ones who have the most positive effect on their teams.

Since we’re going back this far, we can’t use what is, for my money, the best publicly-available one-number metric (Estimated Plus-Minus), as that incorporates tracking data and therefore only goes back to 2013-14. Although, if you were wondering, in that measure, Wembanyama has the second-best rookie season since 2013-14 (behind only Nikola Jokic).

Another thing to note is that we’ve added a minimum minutes played filter (of 500 minutes) for this study. After that filter, we have 940 rookie seasons to analyze.

****All data has been updated through March 19, 2024.

Box Plus-Minus

Basketball Reference’s Box Plus-Minus (BPM) is probably the most mainstream of all the one-number metrics. It doesn’t incorporate tracking data. It doesn’t even include play-by-play data. Instead, BPM uses box score statistics (points, rebounds, blocks, etc.) to measure a player’s impact on their team per 100 possessions. For a more detailed breakdown of BPM, be sure to look at Basketball Reference’s explainer article on the metric.

With that said, here are the top 10 rookie BPM seasons since 1996-97:

Best Rookie Box Plus-Minus (BPM) Seasons Since 1996-97*

Player Season  Minutes Played BPM
Chris Paul 2005-06 2808 5.2
Tim Duncan 1997-98 3204 4.6
Victor Wembanyama 2023-24 1742 4.5
Boban Marjanovic 2015-16 508 4.3
Kyrie Irving 2011-12 1558 4.1
Nikola Jokic 2015-16 1733 3.9
Luka Doncic 2018-19 2318 3.9
Patrick Beverley 2012-13 713 3.8
Andrei Kirilenko 2001-02 2151 3.7
Paul Pierce 1998-99 2483 3.7

*Data Provided by Basketball Reference (Minimum 500 Minutes Played)

Based on BPM, Wembanyama owns the third-best rookie season since 1996-97, behind only Tim Duncan and Chris Paul. One other thing you will notice here and with the other metrics we look at is that they tend to bias toward low-usage bigs who take a majority of their shots around the rim (hence Boban Marjanovic’s presence on this list).

Darko Plus-Minus

Next up, we have Darko Plus-Minus (DPM), which is basically the souped up version of BPM. It accounts for box score data. But it also looks at play-by-play data and other game-level information provided by Basketball Reference and On top of that, it has a forward-facing element to it, which helps you project a player’s future performance (which is great when looking at rookies). For a more detailed breakdown of DPM, be sure to look at the explainer article on the metric.

Best Rookie Darko Plus-Minus (DPM) Seasons Since 1996-97*

Player Season  Minutes Played DPM
Tim Duncan 1997-98 3204 4.6
Victor Wembanyama 2023-24 1742 4.5
Nikola Jokic 2015-16 1733 3.1
Chris Paul 2005-06 2808 2.4
Andrei Kirilenko 2001-02 2151 2.4
Kyrie Irving 2011-12 1558 2.3
James Harden 2009-10 1738 2.2
Steve Francis 1999-00 2776 2.1
Ricky Rubio 2011-12 1404 2.1
Paul Pierce 1998-99 1632 2.0

*Data Provided by (Minimum 500 Minutes Played)

Again, we see Wembanyama near the top of this list. This time, though, he’s second – trailing only Duncan in DPM. Also, notice the re-emergence of familiar faces like Jokic, Paul, Andrei Kirilenko, Kyrie Irving, and Paul Pierce. This gives us the sense that we’re on the right track with what we are using to rank rookie performance.

(Sidebar: One other thing to mention. Look at how Marjanovic – or any other bigs like him – are on this list. That’s because this metric does a better job of adjusting/accounting for the bias that BPM has for them.)

Win Shares Per 48 Minutes

Basketball Reference’s Win Shares per 48 minutes (WS per 48) metric, as the name implies, looks at how much a player positively/negatively contributes to winning over a 48-minute period. Again, for a more detailed explainer on WS per 48, be sure to check out the article they have on it on their website.

Before we show you the results, do you remember what we said about these metrics biasing toward players like Marjanovic? Well, WS per 48 is easily the biggest offender here. Of the four different metrics we’ve cited in this study, I’d put the least stock in WS per 48. But we will still share our results with you: 1) because Sravan already pulled them, and 2) looking at them is instructive.

Best Rookie Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (WS Per 48) Seasons Since 1996-97*

Player Season  Minutes Played WS Per 48
Boban Marjanovic 2015-16 508 0.33
Carl Landry 2007-08 711 0.25
Mitchell Robinson 2018-19 1360 0.22
Trayce Jackson-Davis 2023-24 773 0.21
Kenneth Faried 2011-12 1037 0.21
Chuck Hayes 2005-06 535 0.21
Walker Kessler 2022-23 1703 0.20
Tim Duncan 1997-98 3204 0.19
Zydrunas Ilgauskas 1997-98 2379 0.19
Nikola Jokic 2015-16 1733 0.19

*Data Provided by Basketball Reference (Minimum 500 Minutes Played)

See what we mean? There are a bunch of names in the top 10 in WS per 48 that don’t show up in DPM or BPM (although Walker Kessler and Mitchell Robinson show up in the top 10 rookie EPM seasons, so their place on this list is probably legitimate).

Wembanyama does not crack the top 10 (he’s actually 355th). The main reason for this is that San Antonio Spurs have not won too many games (15) for Wembanyama to have a share in.

(Sidebar #2: As an aside, it’s ironic that we see another 2023-24 rookie on this list in Trayce Jackson-Davis.)

Duncan and Jokic make another appearance on this list, making them the only two players to make the top 10 in all three of the categories we’ve looked at.

The Bottom Line

After looking through all these one-number metrics, we can conclude that Wembanyama is one of the best rookies of the last 30 years. He’s not by far and away the best rookie since 1996-97. If he was, he’d probably have a significant advantage in most/all of these measures. However, his season is right up there with the other great rookie seasons of the last three decades, alongside guys like Duncan, Jokic, Paul, Kirilenko, and Pierce.

And considering four of these five players are either currently in the Hall of Fame or on their way to it (Kirilenko may also have been had he stayed healthy), it seems like Wembanyama’s rookie year has more than lived up to the hype.