Coming into the NBA for young players, especially rookies, is not easy. There is a lot of pressure for young players to perform immediately in most cases because basketball is a young man’s league. The future of professional basketball falls into the hands of young starlets because they will dictate the goals of their teams. Most rookies come into the NBA at the ripe age of 19 and are forced to keep up with veterans and grown men on the floor.
But we have seen players come into the NBA at 18 years old, the age at which most young people are still in high school or planning to attend the first year of college. At 18, there should not be much pressure because in most cases, these are still kids without having grown into their man bodies, to say the least. But some 18-year-olds burst onto the scene impressively, and some very recognizable names include Kobe Bryant.
But as players mature in the league, their impact becomes evident to their teams. A player is still considered to be out of his prime in his early 20s, as learning the ropes of the game comes down to winning consistently. Once a player hits 25 or 26, he is thought to have entered his prime until the age of 33 or 34. After that, a player starts showing a decline as their athleticism and all-around impacts begins to decrease. Looking throughout NBA history, which players have been the best scorers at particular ages? We have collected the player with the highest PPG at every age, and it could yield some surprising results. The rule will be that a player turns that respective age as of February 1st of that season, and has a minimum of 20 games played between ages 18-27 (minimum of 50 games played between ages 28-37).
18-Year-Old – Kobe Bryant – 7.6 PPG
A cocky and brash teenager, everybody knew Kobe Bryant was going to take over the league at some point. But it would take some time, mainly because Bryant was a scrawny teenager with plenty of room to grow – physically and mentally. In his rookie season, a confident Bryant averaged 7.6 PPG in 71 games played for a Los Angeles Lakers squad.
Taken No. 13 overall in the 1996 NBA Draft, would make the All-Star Team in his second season and eventually win 3 NBA titles alongside Shaquille O’Neal. Of course, Kobe would retire as arguably the greatest Laker ever with 5 NBA titles and 2 Finals MVPs to his name. In terms of the greatest seasons for an 18-year-old, Bryant stands tall as the greatest to have done it.
Runner-Up: Tracy McGrady – 7.0 PPG
19-Year-Old – Zion Williamson – 22.5 PPG
Everyone knew Zion Williamson was a special talent, and that he would become an All-Star someday. It was immediately evident during his rookie season, as Zion had glimpses of offensive firepower along with physical dominance and rebounding. The power forward was only 19 but still played in 24 games at 27.8 MPG.
Zion was given chances to show his talents considering he was so young because the New Orleans Pelicans wanted to see how their franchise star would perform after being taken No. 1 overall in the 2019 NBA Draft. The Pelicans would eventually have a solid roster with the likes of Brandon Ingram and CJ McCollum scoring the ball at a high level, as Zion nurses his injuries. Still, Williamson showed glimpses of being a solid scorer at 19, and the NBA Universe is waiting for the big man to return healthy because he has a shot to become an all-time great legend of the game.
Runner-Up: Luka Doncic – 21.2 PPG
20-Year-Old – Luka Doncic – 28.8 PPG
A 6’7” superstar that was taken No. 3 overall in the 2018 NBA Draft, Luka Doncic was given a chance to showcase his All-Star talents as a 20-year-old in his second season. The franchise star averaged 33.6 MPG, putting up 28.8 PPG which ranks 1st all-time among 20-year-olds.
Luka even managed to usurp the great LeBron James in terms of PPG average at the young age of 20, but his second season set the tone for the superstar who would play a total of 2 more seasons in the league as a top-10 player in the game. Putting up 28.8 PPG certainly leaps out the page, but considering the Slovenian was only 20 years old, this production was nowhere near expected.
Runner-Up: LeBron James – 27.2 PPG
21-Year-Old – LeBron James – 31.4 PPG
A 6’9” powerhouse forward, LeBron James was drafted No. 1 overall in the 2003 NBA Draft with the weight of the NBA world on his shoulders. The young King was only in his third season, playing 42.5 MPG for the season. The Cavaliers superstar averaged 31.4 PPG on 48.0% shooting, adding in 7.0 RPG and 6.6 APG. James was shockingly great at 21 years old, and he exceeded expectations so soon.
Of course, James would go on to have one of the greatest careers in NBA history as not only a scorer but an excellent all-around player who is a pass-first player. Despite putting up 31.4 PPG (the highest for any 21-year-old), James would have to wait until his 5th season to win his first scoring title. James even managed to outdo a young Kevin Durant, who dropped 30.1 PPG at age 21 for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Runner-Up: Kevin Durant – 30.1 PPG
22-Year-Old – Rick Barry – 35.6 PPG
A future 12-time All-Star and 6-time All-NBA performer, Rick Barry had an incredible start to his Hall of Fame NBA career. The superstar was taken No. 4 overall in the 1965 NBA Draft by the San Francisco Warriors, and the franchise immediately gave the young man a chance. He put up 25.7 PPG and 10.6 RPG in his rookie season, following that up with an iconic season.
At age 22, Rick Barry put up a league-high 35.6 PPG in his second season. The small forward was firing on all cylinders, averaging 45.1% from the field and 88.4% from the free-throw line. An elite scorer with an excellent ability to shoot and drive the lane, Rick Barry’s scoring output at age 22 will probably never be surpassed.
Runner-Up: Walt Bellamy – 31.6 PPG
23-Year-Old – Wilt Chamberlain – 37.6 PPG
The No. 3 overall pick in the 1959 NBA Draft, superstar center Wilt Chamberlain was an easy option by the Philadelphia Warriors because the center stood 7’1” and could be an imposing force in the paint. As soon as he stepped foot on an NBA court, Wilt was the most athletic player in the league’s history at that time.
The center wasted no time in making a solid impact because he posted 37.6 PPG and 27.0 RPG in his rookie season at 23 years old. Wilt was given over 46 MPG in his rookie season, an incredible number for a young player with a ton of expectation. By his third season, the center would shatter the record for most points in a season and forever enter the record books as an all-time great player.
Runner-Up: Michael Jordan – 37.1 PPG
24-Year-Old – Wilt Chamberlain – 38.4 PPG
After holding the record for most points as a 23-year-old, Wilt Chamberlain followed up his iconic rookie season (37.6 PPG) with an even better second season. The center was incredibly dominant, posting 38.4 PPG on 50.9% shooting from the field in 47.8 MPG. By his second season, it was obvious the NBA was Wilt’s for the taking.
There was no answer for the dominant big man because he could easily shoot over smaller defenders and dominate the court with length and athleticism. The big man also added in 27.2 RPG, a clear indication that we will never see a player like The Big Dipper again. Once again, Michael Jordan is a runner-up to Wilt in a PPG record.
Runner-Up: Michael Jordan – 35.0 PPG
25-Year-Old – Wilt Chamberlain – 50.4 PPG
Guess who? 25-year-old Wilt Chamberlain was once again dominant, this time putting up 50.4 PPG in his third season. The 1962 season marked the 3rd straight year that Wilt tops the PPG chart, and this was also the year where Wilt dropped a whopping 100 points in a single game. Quite frankly, Chamberlain was a walking phenom that was unfathomably great at his position.
While it is easy to write off Wilt’s performances because he was so much bigger and stronger than any other player in the league, he still had to go out and put up historic numbers. We have not seen a more physically dominant than Wilt ever, although Shaq comes close. For the third straight time, Michael Jordan finishes runner-up to Wilt at a specific age.
Runner-Up: Michael Jordan – 32.5 PPG
26-Year-Old – Wilt Chamberlain – 44.8 PPG
There is no doubt that big man Wilt Chamberlain was not going to slow down by his 4th season. The young man was still the most dominant player in the world, following up his record-breaking season with yet another one. Wilt posted 44.8 PPG in 47.6 MPG on 52.8% shooting from the field, simply ridiculous numbers.
It is even impossible to recreate in a videogame what Wilt was doing early on in his career. He made other NBA players look like children as he automatically got buckers around the basket. The Big Dipper only shot 59.3% from the free-throw line when he averaged almost 14 free throws per game, meaning he could have had an even higher average had he shot the ball better.
Runner-Up: Elgin Baylor – 34.8 PPG
27-Year-Old – Elgin Baylor – 38.3 PPG
Finally, no Wilt Chamberlain. But the big man did finish second place, this time to Lakers legend Elgin Baylor. The superstar forward is often disrespected on all-time rankings only because he never captured an NBA title, but there is no denying he is one of the best scorers of all-time.
Baylor has the 3rd highest career PPG average in NBA history at 27.4 PPG, and also holds the record for most PPG at age 27. In his fourth season with the Los Angeles Lakers, Baylor only appeared in 48 games but still played 44.4 MPG while nailing 42.8% of his shots en route to an all-time great season average of 38.3 PPG.
Runner-Up: Wilt Chamberlain – 36.9 PPG
28-Year-Old – Wilt Chamberlain – 34.7 PPG
Guess who’s back? Wilt Chamberlain holds yet another scoring record at a particular age. This time, Chamberlain averaged 34.7 PPG at 28 years old when he split his season with the San Francisco Warriors and Philadelphia 76ers. Chamberlain averaged 38.9 PPG for the Warriors through 38 games before getting traded.
Once he landed in Philadelphia, Wilt completed another 35 games when he dropped 30.1 PPG on 52.8% shooting from the field. The legendary center was iconically great on the floor, playing 44.5 MPG. This time, Elgin Baylor finished runner-up by dropping 34.0 PPG for the Lakers in yet another magical season for him.
Runner-Up: Elgin Baylor – 34.0 PPG
29-Year-Old – James Harden – 36.1 PPG
Anytime any player manages to score more than Wilt Chamberlain in a particular season, it has to be something special. There is no doubt that the Beard, James Harden, was special in the 2019 season. The Houston Rockets superstar was extremely effective at forcing the referees to blow whistles, earning him 11 free throws per game.
When he was not on the line, Harden was attempting his patented step-back three-pointers and took 13 three-pointers per game. It was clear how Harden was generating the bulk of his points: from the three-point line and free-throw line. James also shot 36.8% from three, meaning he would make 4-5 threes per game. No player scored easier than Harden at age 29, and that included Wilt Chamberlain.
Runner-Up: Wilt Chamberlain – 33.5 PPG
30-Year-Old – James Harden – 34.3 PPG
Following up his 2019 season of dropping 36.1 PPG, Harden was back at it again for the Houston Rockets by posting 34.3 PPG. The elite shooting guard was facing double-teams as soon as he stepped across half-court, showcasing the fear he imposed on opposing coaches.
James was once again exceptional at beating his defender off the dribble and drawing fouls at the basket, attempting an average of nearly 12 free throws per game. Harden also attempted 12 threes per game, once again keeping his offense to the three-point line and around the basket. Harden beat out Allen Iverson’s season in 2006 when the 4-time scoring champion dropped 33.0 PPG.
Runner-Up: Allen Iverson – 33.0 PPG
31-Year-Old – Jerry West – 31.2 PPG
When discussing the best shooting guards of all time, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant dominate the discussion and that is fair enough. But Jerry West should receive consideration at the third place because he was an all-time great shooter and scorer that carried the Los Angeles Lakers for years. The NBA’s logo put up 31.2 PPG during the 1970 NBA season, which resulted in the guard’s first and only scoring title.
West was exceptional from the field (49.7%) and from the free-throw line (82.4%). The shooting guard was also one year removed from winning Finals MVP despite losing in the Finals. An elite shooter, West’s season at 31 years old also beats out Larry Bird’s season in 1988 when he dropped 29.9 PPG on 50-40-90 splits.
Runner-Up: Larry Bird – 29.9 PPG
32-Year-Old – Stephen Curry – 32.0 PPG
Just last year, Stephen Curry was 32 years old when he won his second scoring title and broke the record for the highest PPG average at his age. The greatest shooter we have ever seen, Steph dropped 32.0 PPG on 48.2% from the field, 42.1% from three, and 91.6% from the free-throw line.
The Golden State Warriors season was slowed by player injuries, but Curry still showed the world what it takes to be an all-time great scorer despite standing at a slender 6’2” and weighing 185 lbs. There has never been a player like Steph before, and not even the great Michael Jordan could usurp what Curry did at age 32.
Runner-Up: Michael Jordan – 30.4 PPG
33-Year-Old – Dominique Wilkins – 29.9 PPG
One of the most underrated stars ever, Dominique Wilkins was a fantastic scorer for the Atlanta Hawks. One of the greatest dunkers ever and an automatic scorer from mid-range and around the rim, ‘Nique was unstoppable at age 33 when he posted 29.9 PPG.
The high-flyer shot 46.8% from the field, 38.0% from three, and 82.8% from the free-throw line for the Hawks. Wilkins had already won a scoring title in his 4th season, and even though the 33-year-old would not add another scoring title, he holds the record for highest PPG at that age ahead of Michael Jordan.
Runner-Up: Michael Jordan – 29.6 PPG
34-Year-Old – Michael Jordan – 28.7 PPG
Finally, Michael Jordan tops the charts for most PPG at a particular age. The GOAT did it at age 34 when he dropped 28.7 PPG on an efficient 46.5% from the field. This production also led to Jordan winning his 10th scoring title as a member of the Chicago Bulls.
Mike’s methods of scoring were varied because he could take a defender into the post or beat him off the dribble before stepping back for a jumper or continuing to the basket. Jordan punished his defenders every time he was in one-on-one situations, and his season at age 34 usurps the likes of Bernard King (28.4 PPG) and LeBron James (27.4 PPG).
Runner-Up: Bernard King – 28.4 PPG
35-Year-Old – Alex English – 26.5 PPG
One of the biggest snubs of the NBA 75th Anniversary Team, Bernard King was an all-time great player for the Denver Nuggets. A 6’7” small forward, English put up a whopping 26.5 PPG at the very ripe age of 35.
English was known for scoring around the rim, using his soft touch to make highlights and punish defenders for slacking on defense. The Hall of Famer’s season in 1989 marked the 10th straight year of putting up over 20 PPG. English also did a better job at scoring than LeBron did with the Lakers in 2020.
Runner-Up: LeBron James – 25.3 PPG
36-Year-Old – Karl Malone – 25.5 PPG
At age 36, Karl Malone was still one of the best scorers in NBA history. The Mailman had an automatic mid-range jumper and thanks to John Stockton’s pinpoint passes, he made a killing around the basket as well. Malone was so good, that the Utah Jazz finished with a 55-27 record.
Malone’s 25.5 PPG average marked the 14th season that the big man averaged at least 20 PPG, and he would finish his career with 17 seasons putting up at least 20 PPG. An all-time great scorer, Malone also managed to usurp Hakeem’s 18.9 PPG that he put up with the Rockets in 1999. LeBron James scored 25.0 PPG in 2021 as a 36-year-old, but he only finished 48 games during the season.
Runner-Up: Hakeem Olajuwon – 18.9 PPG
37-Year-Old – LeBron James – 30.3 PPG
At age 37, LeBron James is playing at a level, offensively, that we have never seen before. The King has moved away from being a pass-first player, focusing instead on scoring the ball at an unbelievable rate. So far this season, James is averaging 30.3 PPG for the Lakers.
LeBron James is shooting 52.4% from the field, 35.9% from three, and 75.6% from the free-throw line. The King is proving to the world that he has always been an elite scorer, and his average at age 37 greatly usurps what second-place Karl Malone did with the Jazz (23.2 PPG).
Runner-Up: Karl Malone – 23.2 PPG
38-Year-Old – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – 23.4 PPG
Other than LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the greatest player of all time in terms of longevity and scoring record. At age 38, the center put up an impressive 23.4 PPG as a member of the dynamic Los Angeles Lakers.
Playing in 79 games, Kareem averaged 33.3 MPG and was still one of the best big men in the league on both ends of the floor. The center averaged 23.4 PPG on 56.4% shooting from the field, and 76.5% from the free-throw line. Armed with the skyhook, Kareem managed to play a very long career.
Runner-Up: Michael Jordan – 22.9 PPG
39-Year-Old – Karl Malone – 20.6 PPG
At age 39, it was not Kareem with the highest scoring average but rather Karl Malone who beat out second-place Michael Jordan. The Mailman was still automatic from mid-range and still a powerhouse on the block, which is why he managed to put up 20.6 PPG in his final season with the Jazz.
A 39-year-old putting up 20.6 PPG on 46.2% shooting from the field is very impressive, and that is why the Jazz were still a competitive squad with a 47-35 record despite their biggest star age. Malone would soon join the Los Angeles Lakers the following season for one last run for a title.
Runner-Up: Michael Jordan – 20.0 PPG
40-Year-Old – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – 14.6 PPG
At 40 years old, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was still an effective two-way player. He was not the same player he was in his prime because he could not play 30 minutes per game consistently anymore, but he could still let the skyhook loose anytime he wanted.
Abdul-Jabbar averaged a solid 14.6 PPG on 52.3% shooting from the field, competing in 28.9 minutes of action. Since the center could defend the rim well and also shoot the skyhook when needed, the Lakers had enough to win the 1988 championship.
Runner-Up: Karl Malone – 13.2 PPG
41-Year-Old – Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – 10.1 PPG
At age 41, Kareem was clearly not the same player he was the previous year but could still score and defend in the paint. Anytime a superstar talent stands 7’2”, he will find a way to be effective even in his final season.
Abdul-Jabbar averaged 10.1 PPG, 4.5 RPG, and 1.1 BPG while shooting 47.5% from the field. Still capable of releasing the skyhook, Kareem was one of the best players on a Lakers team that made the NBA Finals yet again. Unfortunately, they ran into a dominant Detroit Pistons squad that won in 4 games.
Runner-Up: Vince Carter – 5.4 PPG
42-Year-Old – Vince Carter – 7.4 PPG
Very few players in NBA history managed to last until age 42, let alone play important minutes. Somehow, Vince Carter had enough in the tank to average 7.4 PPG and 2.6 RPG while shooting 41.9% from the field and 38.9% from three.
Due to his declined athleticism and slower movement, Carter competed mainly at the power forward spot as he appeared in an impressive 76 games. Playing 17.5 MPG and putting up over 7 PPG was strong because no other player managed to do that at age 42.
Runner-Up: Robert Parish – 3.9 PPG
43-Year-Old – Vince Carter – 5.0 PPG
Somehow, Vince Carter lasted until age 43 before announcing his retirement after the 2020 season. The former 8-time All-Star was once again playing at the power forward spot for the majority of the season, playing 14.6 MPG.
Carter was nowhere near the explosive dunker he used to be, but could still throw it down with some swagger when he managed enough lift. Fans began honoring Carter with ovations and tributes when the player competed in his final games, and he also holds the record for the highest PPG average at 43 years old ahead of Hall of Famer Robert Parish.
Runner-Up: Robert Parish – 3.7 PPG
Credit for idea: NBA Debates/Instagram