Rookie cards are defined as the first time a player is on a card from a major brand. This quickly gets confusing. Typically the rookie cards of a player are the most valuable cards, so this designation is extremely important.
Every sport has different complications of what is the “true” rookie. Then, between multiple brands, there is the question of what is the best rookie. One problem with basketball is the spotty production of basketball cards until the late 1980s. Players rookie were sometimes well after their debut.
PSA has a good working definition of rookie cards: “A players first year of cards, whether or not it is his rookie season. Players may have one or dozens of rookie cards, depending on how highly touted he was as a youngster and in which year his rookie card was issued.”
Basketball cards have a few sets that feature excellent rookies. The 1961-1962 Fleer was the first major set produced in four years, so it is the rookie card set of a few years of players. This includes Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Sam Jones, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Lenn Wilkins, Paul Arzin, and Elgin Baylor. Several of these cards are mentioned on this list.
This same scenario occurred with the 1986-1987 Fleer in which there had been no major producer for a number of years. Although Michael Jordan started playing in the 1984-1985 season, his accepted rookie is from the 1986-1987 Fleer. There are a number of other notable rookie cards with the same situation on this set, such as Charles Barkley and Hakeem Olajuwon.
The quality of a set’s rookies largely depends on the luck of the draw as well. The 2003 NBA Draft yielded LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Bosh. The collection of rookies increases one another’s values.
This set will take you through some of the best rookies. There is no particular order to this list while an attempt was made to represent a holistic collection of basketball eras.
1986-1987 Fleer Michael Jordan
As it stands today, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time. It is fitting that his rookie card is the greatest card in the hobby. 30 points per game, undefeated in six NBA Finals, and six time Finals MVP, these are just the highlights of his accolades.
Part of this card’s massive appeal is the photograph. Michael is shown flying through the air in true “Air Jordan style.” It is as though the card were designed to be iconic.
Jordan was not just a great player; he accelerated the NBA into the modern age, and his card has similarly bolstered the basketball card hobby. Valued at somewhere around thirty to forty thousand in September of 2019, the card is not the most valuable because there was no limited release, insert, autograph, etc. For a straightforward card, it is very expensive.
The card has issues with chipping and general edge issues because of the multi colored borders. More importantly, this is one of the most frequently counterfeited cards in the trading card hobby.
1980-1981 Topps Larry Bird RC, Magic Johnson RC, and Julius Erving
This card is special because it is three for one. In three separate panels, it has Larry Bird and Magic Johnson as rookies, and the Hall of Famer Julius Erving added along.
Part of this card’s uniqueness was that the three for one design was not popular at the time, though since then it has been used a lot. The originality of the design adds to its value, and the whole set is in the three for one format. The three players can and often were divided along the perforated edges by collectors.
The card and the set have grown in popularity over time from unenthusiastic beginnings, but the perforated dividers have led to quality issues. Having all three players intact is rare.
The Bird/Erving/Magic is far more expensive than any other cards in the set. While a Gem Mint of any other card can be bought for a few hundred, the Bird/Erving/Magic card was sold for $125,200 in September of 2018 in Gem Mint condition. Since quality is such an issue for this card, the price quickly drops to a few thousand at a PSA 9.
2003-2004 Exquisite LeBron James Autograph
With only 99 copies produced, the 2003-2004 Exquisite LeBron James is his best card. Add in the autograph, the high quality brand, and the potential for LeBron to grab a couple more rings, and there is no telling how high this card can go. A Gem mint card sold for $325,000 in 2018.
2003 was the first year of Exquisite, and it was the first high quality brand for basketball at the time. When the sets were first released, packs of this set could go for $500.
The set is bulked up by the rookie cards of Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony. LeBron is the resounding leader of this set. It is an interesting coincidence that a high quality set was produced during one of the best draft classes ever.
1948 Bowman George Mikan
George Mikan’s rookie card is an excellent vintage card. Though he dominated the early days as the first transcendent big man of professional basketball, it is hard to evaluate his skills today because the game is so different. His rookie card is found in first national basketball release. With the value of Mikan as an original professional player and the significance of the first national set, the 1948 Bowman George Mikan has historical significance.
The card itself looks great. Mikan is shown charging to the basket with a ferocious look. It measures at 2 1/16” x 2 ½”. There are difficulties with centering and toning as with all sets from Bowman in 1948. Many of the cards are hand cut because uncut sheets found their way into the hobby in the decades after its release.
1969-1970 Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar)
At the time of this cards release, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was legally name Lew Alcindor. Kareem has been under consideration for the greatest of all time for decades.
The cards measure at 2 ½” x 4 11/16” which is exceptionally tall which is appropriate for an exceptionally tall player at 7’ 2”. The size creates condition issues. There are also problems with centering, as well as print defects easily appearing on the white border.
Gem mint copies are extremely rare. One sold for $240,000 in November of 2017. Prices quickly fall as quality decreases and a respectable PSA 7 was purchased for $1500 in August of 2019.
The general design is criticized for the awkward oval portrait and the gawky cartoons.
1957-1958 Topps Bill Russell
The 1957-1958 Topps Bill Russell was the first major basketball set since the 1948 Bowman. It is another one of those sets, in addition to the 1986 Fleer and 1962 Fleer, that has several notable rookies. It is a very important set to the hobby.
Bill Russell caries the set. With 11 championships in 13 seasons, he is one of the best.
Poor centering, print defects, and a difficult white border make for an extremely sensitive card. There are no PSA 10’s and only 3 PSA 9’s listed on the website’s population report. The card is very valuable with a PSA 8 selling for anywhere between $20,000 to $40,000.
1996-1997 Topps Chrome Kobe Bryant
Kobe Bryant needs to be on this list to help represent valuable modern sports cards. He is known for the “Mamba Mentality” which is a pure drive to win. Kobe is important to basketball and basketball cards because he helped lead the NBA in the post Michael Jordan era.
Part of that new era was the 1996-1997 Topps Chrome. The set was innovative with more appealing inserts and parallels.
The base card is popular and common PSA 10’s are frequently sold for $1500. The refractor is less common and very popular. It multiplies the price to $16,000 at the same grade.
1961-1962 Fleer Jerry West
Jerry West, affectionately called “The Logo” because his image is represented on the NBA logo, has had an astounding career in basketball as a player and more so as an executive. He made a resounding impact in his work for the Lakers, Grizzlies, Clippers, and Warriors where he helped to build competitive teams with many winning championships. Sometimes the players on cards are more valuable as a coach or manager than their playing days.
High quality cards are rare. A PSA 9 has sold between $10,000 to $20,000 for the last few years.
1961-1962 Fleer Wilt Chamberlain
Best known for the unimaginable one hundred point game, Wilt Chamberlain was one of the most dominant players ever. He averaged 50.4 points per game for a season! He is another key to this fantastic 1961-1962 Fleer set.
As mentioned a couple times above, there are condition issues to this set.
Wilt has a particularly beautiful card. It is sectioned off into team name and logo, player name and position, and the photo of Wilt. The deep red background of the photo plays well with the brighter red on top.
The value of a PSA 9 is somewhat erratic, but it sold for around $40,000 in 2019.
1970-1971 Topps Pete Maravich
Pistol Pete Maravich is more of a myth today. He was an unbelievable shooter with absurd trickery, but there were difficult injuries and an unfortunate untimely death. He has cards to look into because his legend is ingrained in pop culture as a crowd favorite.
Gem mint condition for this card are rare. One sold for $130,054 in 2015.
1986-1987 Fleer Charles Barkley
Charles Barkley is overshadowed by Michael Jordan for this set, as well as being overshadowed during his career. Barkley was somehow dominant in the paint despite his height. Like the Jordan card from this set, Barkley has an awesome action shot for his card. An additional part of this card’s appeal is that Barkley remains a nationally known figure. He has a gregarious and straight talking television personality that works well as a sports analyst.
Of the cards in this set, this is the most affordable. A PSA 10 costs less than $1,000, and the price drops to $100 for a PSA 8. It is a card worth looking into at a reasonable budget.
1961-1962 Fleer Elgin Baylor
The last two cards on this list are from the 1961-1962 Fleer. Elgin Baylor is a hidden gem. For some reason, his legacy has become lost through the years. For example, during the 1963 season, Baylor was in the top five in scoring, rebounding, and assists. A Hall of Famer, he is a lesser talked about great player.
Quality conditions for this set are sensitive. Unique to Baylor is that there is a print defect on the right cheek of Baylor. This is on every card, so it does not affect the price. Despite any lack of recognition for Baylor’s career, a PSA 9 is worth $20,000.
1961-1962 Fleer Oscar Robertson
Oscar Robertson has another important rookie for the basketball card hobby. He is best known for his 30 point triple double average season during 1961-1962. This set, while condition sensitive, are overall beautiful cards. A PSA 9 sells similarly to a Baylor or West at the same grade and set.
Basketball rookies are a great niche to dive into. There are plenty of valuable cards from every decade into the modern day. We hope we gave you a look at some of the best ones.