An essence of nostalgia permeated my mind a day before the 2017-18 NBA season tipped off Tuesday night. The initial thought was to join the wave of “bold predictions” concerning who would be this year’s NBA champion, MVP, scoring champion, Rookie of the Year, etc.
But then it hit me.
“How did today’s NBA stars fare in each of their debuts?”
The talent of current NBA rookies Lonzo Ball, Markelle Fultz, Jayson Tatum, De’Aaron Fox, Ben Simmons and others has brought about one of the most hyped draft classes in years, possibly since the 2003 NBA Draft. Now, it’s time to explore the journeys of players who were once in their shoes and are now at the top of the game.
In honor of the return of NBA basketball, here is a list of today’s biggest names and how they did in their introductions to the league.
LeBron James: Oct. 29, 2003 – Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Sacramento Kings
It was during LeBron James’s senior year of high school at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s that he tattooed “Chosen 1” on his upper back after being featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Getting such ink is likely something many would deem as risky, but “King James” has lived up to the moniker as one of the best ever, as he just began his 15th NBA season.
Still, to this day, we have yet to see any other high school player with the buzz LeBron had leading up to his NBA arrival.
LeBron didn’t disappoint in his first NBA game, finishing with a stat line of 25 points, nine assists, six rebounds and four steals in 42 minutes of play, but was defeated 106-92.
The chase for ring No. 4 has begun. With no Kyrie Irving and the additions of Dwyane Wade, Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose and others, another tough journey lies ahead for King James and the Cavs, as it’s logical to assume that they have one thing on their minds: to find a way to defeat the Golden State Warriors.
Steph Curry: Oct. 28, 2009 – GS Warriors vs. Houston Rockets
At the core of the Warriors’ dethronement of the King and co. in two of the last three NBA Finals series is Stephen Curry. It’s no question that Curry is the greatest shooter of all time. From breaking the NBA’s single-game record of three-pointers made with 13 last season to surpassing the NBA’s single-season record for three-pointers made a total of three times, in addition to becoming the only player to ever make 300 and 400-plus threes in a season, Curry’s numbers need no explanation.
Known for his sharpshooter ability at Davidson College, Curry’s first NBA game was a convincing performance. It was an efficient game by Curry, as he went 7-of-12 from the field to score 14 points, dished out seven assists and snagged four steals in a narrow 108-107 loss. Most surprisingly, he went 0-1 from beyond the arc. Aren’t we grateful that the world of analytics wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today? Boy, would they have been proven wrong.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: Oct. 30, 2013 – Milwaukee Bucks vs. NY Knicks
The youngest player of the 2013 NBA Draft, the then 18-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo was a mystery for most coming out of the Greek professional basketball club Filathlitikos.
His body and build showed signs of a stretch forward who had the length yet lacked the bulk. Uncertainty loomed even more after Antetokounmpo played just 4:43 minutes and scored one point from the free-throw line with no shot attempts in his NBA debut, which concluded with a 90-83 defeat.
But that performance wasn’t the end of the tale for Antetokounmpo.
It was the start of a star whom we all know as “The Greek Freak.”
“The Greek Freak, I think, is a force. I’ve never seen anything like him. His ceiling is probably … he could end up being the best player to ever play if he really wanted to. That’s pretty scary to think about. He’s by far my most favorite player to watch.”
Those are the words of Golden State’s Kevin Durant, who made such claims in a video on his YouTube channel.
They’re words that were earned, as Antetokounmpo is coming off his best career year after becoming a first-time NBA All-Star and the first player ever to finish a regular season in the top 20 in all major stats (points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks).
KD is right; Antetokounmpo’s ceiling has no limits at the ripe, pre-prime age of 22. Who knows, the Greek Freak just might fulfill Kobe Bryant’s challenge of winning the NBA MVP award.
Kevin Durant: Oct. 31, 2007 – Seattle Supersonics vs. Denver Nuggets
The first glimpse into the current wave of stretch forwards begins with Kevin Durant. While the impact of length had been witnessed with legends like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain, and the ability to handle the ball with craft was displayed by players such Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Allen Iverson, Durant introduced an unorthodox skillset — a near seven-foot stature with the ability to do it all on the court.
Right out the gates in his first career game, the then 19-year-old was looking to make an immediate impact as he ended with 22 shot attempts. He finished with 18 points with seven made field goals, five rebounds, three steals and a block in a 120-103 loss to a Denver team that had both Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson record a combined 57 points.
The current state of KD’s career is at its full peak after his decision to join the Golden State Warriors last offseason. Despite the critics, Durant is now an NBA champion and NBA Finals MVP and has convinced many that he is the league’s best player.
James Harden: Oct. 28, 2009 – OKC Thunder vs. Sacramento Kings
Whether it be from long range or a quick hesi-eurostep, Harden is one the NBA’s most lethal offensive players.
Upon entering the league, he was drafted into one of the best situations possible with his teammates being Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
How Harden would fit within that puzzle was a concern.
Before becoming the star player we know today as “The Beard,” his growth began with his transition to the pros.
It was a slow start for Harden, whose playing time was capped at 13 minutes and included five points on 2-of-2 shooting, 1-of-1 from behind the three-point line and two rebounds in a 102-89 win.
Since joining the Houston Rockets, Harden has become one of the NBA’s ultimate stars and is coming off a year during which he averaged 29.1 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds per game — all career highs.
Claims that Harden has been snubbed twice for the NBA MVP award still ring, but after helping lead the Rockets to their 122-121 win over the Warriors, he and Houston could possibly be a true contender in the West.
Kawhi Leonard: Dec. 26, 2011 – SA Spurs vs. Memphis Grizzlies
The late start was a result of the 2011 NBA lockout that took place. Most notably, the Indiana Pacers must regret trading Kawhi Leonard to the Spurs.
Overlooked in his draft class due to questions surrounding his offensive potential, Leonard turned out to be the biggest steal of the draft and is now within the conversation of being the game’s next best player.
Similar to some others on this list, his first game didn’t make a profound statement.
Coming off the bench in the Spurs’ 95-82 defeat of Memphis, Leonard concluded his debut with six points on 2-of-9 shooting along with six rebounds, two steals and an assist.
A reserved, humble spirit who lets his play do all the talking, Leonard remained low on many fans’ and experts’ radars until his emergence in the 2014 NBA Finals. He ended the championship series averaging 17.8 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game to win the NBA Finals MVP award.
His postseason performance was the birth of a star, as he went on to embrace a bigger role for the Spurs and is now the team’s No. 1 option after putting up a career-high scoring average of 25.5 PPG last season.
In spite of being ruled out of the Spurs’ Wednesday season opener, “The Klaw” seems to be on a path to greatness as he prepares for another year as San Antonio’s leading man.
Russell Westbrook: Oct. 29, 2008 – OKC Thunder vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Since day one, Westbrook has been known for his relentless, Looney Tunes “Tasmanian Devil” motor. His first full season without KD left many favoring the likelihood of the Thunder plummeting to the bottom half of the Western Conference.
Rather than sink, Westbrook made history and won the NBA MVP award after breaking NBA legend Oscar Robertson’s single-season triple double-record of 41 by finishing last season with 42 and becoming the first player since Robertson to average a triple-double (31.6 PPG, 10.4 APG, 10.7 RPG).
Rewinding back to the first game of his rookie year, he had 13 points, four assists, four rebounds and one block in a 98-87 loss.
Westbrook can produce for a team on his own, but he did need more help. That help has arrived with OKC’s additions of stars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony.
Anthony Davis: Oct. 31, 2012 – New Orleans Hornets vs. SA Spurs
The process of being drafted by a rebuilding franchise has been a long, challenging journey for Anthony Davis, who has one playoff appearance under his belt.
However, “The Brow” has proven that he belongs in the NBA and showcased this in his career debut.
He made the most of his 29 minutes, having tallied 21 points on a 6-of-12 shooting performance all while collecting seven rebounds, one steal and one block apiece, but the team still lost 99-95.
Damian Lillard: Oct. 31, 2012 – Portland Trailblazers vs. LA Lakers
Coming out of Weber State, Damian Lillard has and still does rock a chip on his shoulder as he embraces the underdog role of being underrated throughout his career.
He and the Trailblazers hosted the Lakers, who at the time had Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash on their team.
Dame showed no fear and managed to overcome six turnovers as he broke out for a night that consisted of scoring 23 points, 11 assists, three rebounds and one steal. His strong performance helped lead Portland to a 116-106 victory.
Kyrie Irving: Dec. 26, 2011 – Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Toronto Raptors
Following “The Decision” of LeBron James to leave Cleveland for the Miami Heat, the Cavaliers were in search of their next superstar.
With the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, Kyrie Irving was the team’s selection to be the face of its franchise.
The pressure may have gotten to Irving in his debut as he finished with six points on 2-of-12 shooting, seven assists, three rebounds and one steal in the Cavs’ 104-96 loss.
James’s return in 2014 led to the pairing of him and Irving, which resulted in their success of winning one NBA title in three years of playing with each other prior to Irving having his trade request granted this past summer, landing him in Boston.
Tuesday night was just the beginning of the “Uncle Drew-King James” saga that will continue to build hype as the season progresses.
A version of this story appeared on p. 8 of the Oct. 19, 2017, edition of the Daily Nexus.