Top 20 Basketball Rookie Cards of All-Time

Top 20 Basketball Rookie Cards of All-Time

When talking about overall popularity and the sheer volume of collectors, basketball generally takes a backseat to baseball and football. However, strong international demand and the tendency for elite NBA players to become global stars, puts basketball rookie cards in a special category.

The following list counts down the top 20 basketball rookie cards of all-time. It can be difficult to determine the best order when dealing with cards from different eras, especially given the evolution of cards. A combination of value and historical significance were used to compile this list. This is by no means the definitive list of top basketball rookies, because there are just too many variables to base that list on. It is simply our view of the top 20 basketball rookie cards currently available to collectors.

To be clear, this is not a list of the top players in NBA history, but instead, the top rookie cards. In order to make a clean list, we included a few caveats. First, there is only one card per player and no parallels are included. Only full-fledged NBA releases are featured, so no Star Company, despite the value and demand for these mid-80's, limited distribution products. Also, as stated above, value is important, but it is not the only factor. Lastly, this list is based on things right now. In the future, the spots may shift and names may roll on and off.

As expected, a few sets dominate the list. Hobby product legends, 1961-62 Fleer, 1986-87 Fleer and 2003-04 Exquisite, all have multiple cards on the list.

Think we missed one? Feel free to add it in the comments.

Top Basketball Rookie Cards of All-Time

Follow the links to shop for singles on eBay. 

20. 1986-87 Fleer Basketball Hakeem Olajuwon RC #82

Hakeem Olajuwon, or Akeem as he was known at the time, does not receive the hobby love he deserves based on his accomplishments. His 1986-87 Fleer rookie card checks in at 20, but "the Dream" is an NBA legend. This is the first of several cards from the iconic 1986-87 Fleer Basketball set to be featured on this list.

1986 87 Fleer Basketball Akeem Olajuwon 214x300 Image

19. 2003-04 Exquisite Carmelo Anthony RC #76 Autographed Jersey #/99

Arguably the next most influential set in basketball collecting after 1986-987 Fleer, 2003-04 Exquisite is representative of what the hobby has become. Carmelo Anthony is still seeking his first title but the historic 2003 NBA Draft class has been a major component of the last decade of professional basketball. The on-card signature, jersey patch, print run of 99, and brand recognition set it apart from all other modern brands.

2003 04 Exquisite Collection Carmelo Anthony RC 76 Autographed Jersey 99  214x300 Image

18. 2005-06 Exquisite Chris Paul #46 Autographed Jersey #/99

Like Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul has not reached the top of the NBA with his first championship. Arguably the best point guard in the NBA, Chris Paul has the Los Angeles Clippers on the cusp of NBA greatness. Sticking with the same formula that made its debut in 2003-04 Exquisite Basketball, the 2005-06 Exquisite background design is little more busy with the ornate designs.

2005 06 Exquisite Chris Paul RC 210x300 Image

17. 1986-87 Fleer Basketball Karl Malone RC #68

One can wonder what Karl Malone could have done if Michael Jordan had never existed. While Jordan owned the 1990's, Karl Malone was regularly part of the team that came up short of the ultimate prize. His 1986-87 Fleer rookie card is another top basketball rookie option and the second on the list from the historic set.

1986 87 Fleer Basketball Karl Malone RC 211x300 Image

16. 2008-09 Exquisite Derrick Rose RC #92 Autographed Jersey #/99

Derrick Rose is coming off of a serious injury and may seem largely out of place on this list based on his accomplishments. But time has a tendency to make people forget and it won't take long for the masses to remember that Rose is still one of the most dynamic players in the NBA. 2008-09 Exquisite was one of the last editions that were NBA-licensed and this is one of several cards that could make a huge leap on the list depending on how things play out. Expect values on this card to shoot up as he returns to form.

2008 09 Exquisite Derrick Rose RC 213x300 Image

15. 2007-08 Exquisite Kevin Durant RC #94 #/99

Kevin Durant took the OKC franchise on his back after the tumultuous relocation from Seattle and in a few short years, had them in the running for a title. Like Rose, Durant is primed for big movement on the list as his peak is approaching. The horizontal layout gives Durant's 2007-08 Exquisite rookie card a different feel, especially in comparison to the rest of the rookie cards on the list.

2007 08 Exquisite Kevin Durant RC 260x183 Image

14. 1986-87 Fleer Basketball Charles Barkley RC #7

Charles Barkley is another player who can blame Michael Jordan for keeping him from an NBA title. Chuck was a dominant player, despite being undersized. His rookie card won't break the bank, but just because all the cards from 1986-87 Fleer seem reasonable in comparison to the Michael Jordan rookie, does not mean that they don't deserve a spot.

1986 87 Fleer Charles Barkley RC 216x300 Image

13. 1961-62 Fleer Oscar Robertson RC #36

"The Big O" is a highly-decorated guard who is widely considered one of the best players in NBA history. This Oscar Robertson rookie card is more work of art than cardboard memento. The colorful background and black-and-white image combine to evoke a nostalgic feeling. As you will soon see, Robertson is not the only player from this product to make the list.

1961 62 Fleer Oscar Robertson RC 36 210x300 Image

12. 2003-04 Exquisite Dwyane Wade RC #74 Autographed Jersey #/99

Dwyane Wade is a star in his own right. History will likely remember him as a great player who needed an even greater player, specifically Shaquille O'Neal and LeBron James, to push his teams to the next level. However, it is unfair to diminish the value of someone's skills because they are not always viewed as the best player on their team. Wade's rookie card from 2003-04 Exquisite may fall in second place, but this is arguably the most valuable modern set in the hobby and Wade is a huge reason for that.

2003 04 Upper Deck Exquisite Dwyane Wade 216x300 Image

11. 1972-73 Topps Julius Erving RC #195

This card screams the 70's in the best way possible. Julius Erving was a player that was well ahead of his time and his rookie card from 1972-73 Topps is a reminder of how great a base card can be without the need for foils, Refractors or Prizms. At this time, Dr. J was a member of the ABA's Virginia Squires. Although the cards for the NBA and ABA were found in the same set, the two leagues would not merge until 1976.

1972 73 Topps Julius Erving RC 212x300 Image

10. 1957-58 Topps Bill Russell RC #77

As the first major basketball set in nearly a decade, 1957-58 Topps includes some prominent rookie cards from this early period of basketball. However, there is no question regarding who is the top option. Bill Russell was a man among boys and his rookie card is a vintage favorite. The very simple card includes a large grainy image with a small name and team text box at the bottom.

1957 58 Topps Bill Russell RC 177 213x300 Image

9. 1961-62 Fleer Jerry West RC #43

The logo himself, Jerry West tends to be remembered for that bit of trivia more than anything else. But West was a great player and 1961-62 Fleer is a terrific set. Fleer has seemingly produced some of the most timeless designs in basketball collecting, and this might be the best. Also, it is amusing that the Lakers used to have a giraffe logo.

1961 62 Fleer Jerry West RC 43 209x300 Image

8. 1970-71 Topps Pete Maravich RC #123

As an offensive genius, Pete Maravich has achieved a nearly-mythical reputation. Injuries and an untimely death robbed the world of the greatness he possessed, but the "Pistol Pete" nickname is still ingrained in pop culture. Maravich's rookie came in 1970-71 Topps and is the best card from the product. The tall boy format may not appeal to everyone, but it has come to represent this early period of basketball collecting.

1970 71 Topps Pete Maravich RC 158x300 Image

7. 1961-62 Fleer Wilt Chamberlain RC #8

Wilt Chamberlain was a scoring machine and still holds the single-game record with 100 points in 1962. His rookie card is the jewel of 1961-62 Fleer. While he is not the only big rookie name found in this product, as evidenced by other cards on the list, Chamberlain is the clear favorite. The deep maroon background gives the card an added boldness and it is easy to see why this is considered one of the best sets of all-time.

1961 62 Fleer Basketball 8 Wilt Chamberlain RC 212x300 Image

6. 1969-70 Topps Lew Alcindor RC #25

Just Lew Alcindor at the time, the world would know him as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. With a height of nearly 5 inches, the tall boy format is appropriate for the 7'2" Abdul-Jabbar. Although the design is not the greatest, especially the multiple cartoon drawings and light blue background, the significance of this 1969-70 Topps rookie card is clear.

1969 70 Topps Lew Alcindor RC 25 159x300 Image

5. 1996-97 Topps Chrome Kobe Bryant RC #138

Kobe Bryant is the closest thing we currently have to Michael Jordan. The hunger, the passion, and the success are all on display each time he plays. Although Jordan would have several more years left at this point, Kobe Bryant headlined the next generation of players that would carry the league into the new millennium. This changing of the gaurd was not limited to just the court. 1996-97 Topps Chrome was part of the evolution that spread across the collecting world. New technology, rare inserts and parallels took card collecting to a new level. The Kobe Bryant Refractor parallel has proven to be especially popular and valuable.

1996 97 Topps Chrome Basketball Kobe Bryant 208x300 Image

4. 1980-81 Topps Larry Bird RC/Magic Johnson RC/Julius Erving #6

A rookie card with just one superstar Hall of Fame player is normally sufficient enough to place it high on the collecting radar. This special card from 1980-81 Topps takes that to another level, featuring three Hall of Famers and including the rookie offerings for both Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, alongside Julius Erving. While the three-in-one format has been beaten to death in the years since, this is a rookie card for the ages.

1980 81 Topps Basketball Larry Bird Julius Irving and Magic Johnson 260x186 Image

3. 1948 Bowman George Mikan RC #69

George Mikan is not generally mentioned among the other players on this list. As one of the first dominant big men, he was an early star of professional basketball, but the game is so different now, it is hard to consider him on equal footing with the others. However, his relevance to the game is unquestioned and his rookie card is the biggest draw from the very first national basketball release. 1948 Bowman was the beginning of basketball cards and that cannot be overlooked. The simple card is nearly a square and includes a black-and-white image and colorful purple-blue background.

1948 Bowman George Mikan RC 69 250x300 Image

2. 2003-04 Exquisite LeBron James RC #78 Autographed Jersey #/99

LeBron James is that rare athlete who can dominate when he chooses, but has no problem sharing the load. More Magic Johnson than Michael Jordan, James has already put his name among the all-time greats. While his rookie year was a monumental occurrence for the NBA, 2003-04 Exquisite brought a similar significance to the collecting world. For the first time, a high-end and luxury product was available and it just so happened to coincide with one of the strongest rookie classes in history. With only 99 cards, values will continue to push higher, with no end in sight.

2003 04 Upper Deck Exquisite Exquisite Rookie Patch LeBron James  99 216x300 Image

1. 1986-87 Fleer Michael Jordan RC #57

It may sound like a broken record to some, but Michael Jordan will never be overtaken. All players will be compared to him, and will come up short. His 1986-87 card is one of many significant rookie cards found in the product, but there is no comparison when it comes to which is the top card. "Air Jordan" is on full display in this iconic card, which showcases him with his tongue out, going up for another gravity-defying dunk. In the basketball collecting world, the Michael Jordan rookie is always going to be above the rim, while the rest remain flat-footed, watching in awe.

1986 87 Fleer Basketball Michael Jordan Real 1 215x300 Image

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Trey Treutel

E-Mail Author | 
Trey Treutel is an Ole Miss grad and a life-long sports fanatic. He is a huge fan of the NBA and NFL, as well as college basketball and football. As a kid, he collected football and basketball cards. As an adult, he started collecting basketball cards again on a whim, and has since expanded to other sports and entertainment options. Find Trey on Twitter at @datreute.

User Comments

  1. Star Co. cards were officially licensed by the NBA during their time of production in the 80′s

  2. The Star company wasn’t a limited edition release. It had a small print run due to the basketball card market of the mid 80′s. As for a full fledged NBA release Star was the only company producing cards so I have no idea what you mean by that comment.

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