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NBA 75 Series: #59 Dennis Johnson

Updated: Feb 7, 2022

Ranked #59 in my 75 Greatest NBA Players of All Time is arguably the most underrated great guard in NBA history, and one of its best ever defenders in Dennis Wayne Johnson. His nickname was “DJ” , same name as me. How ironic is that? Johnson was born on September 18, 1954 in San Pedro, California and passed away at the age of 52 on February 22, 2007 due to cardiac arrest. Johnson was one of sixteen children in his household supported by the earnings of his father who was a bricklayer.

Johnson would attend Dominguez High School where his initial love was baseball in which he even played in the Little League. But, as his father taught him the basics of basketball, his interest in the game grew more and more. Unfortunately though, due to his miniature size at 5-foot-9 he would only play a minute or two a game throughout his time at Dominguez.

After he graduated high school, Johnson played a streetball game one day that caught the eye of Harbor Junior College coach, Jim White, due to his strong perimeter defense, and asked him to enroll. Johnson would pack up the job he was working to join the Junior College team where he would grow seven inches in height to help push him to 6-foot-3 and would average 18.3 points and 12 rebounds a game to help lead Harbor to the state junior college title.

After his impressive play at Harbor Johnson, he had just two scholarship offers from California schools, Pepperdine University and Azusa Pacific University. He would end up choosing the Pepperdine Waves and in his only season there he would average 15.7 points while playing suffocating defense to help lead them to a top 20 ranking and into the NCAA Tournament.

While in the NCAA tournament he showed NBA scouts how valuable he could be by leading the Waves past Memphis and then almost upsetting UCLA by playing elite defense on their playmaker in Andre McCarter. After an amazing tournament run, Johnson would enter his name as a hardship in the 1976 NBA Draft.

He was very skeptical on if he was going to get drafted, which is why he applied as a hardship. But, the Seattle Supersonics (now Oklahoma City Thunder) took the pesky, humble guard with their second round pick in 1976.

As a rookie, Johnson averaged just 9.2 points per game in sparring minutes, but, the next season saw the Sonics make a front office change by hiring one of the greatest point guards in NBA history in Lenny Wilkens to take over as head coach. This occured after Bill Russell left after Johnson’s rookie year and Bob Hopkins' short stint of 22 games in 1977-78.

With Wilkens at the helm, Johnson and the team would flourish, finishing with a 47-35 record and reaching the NBA Finals against the Washington Bullets who had a frontcourt that included Hall of Famers Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes. The Sonics would lead the series 3-2, but would end up squandering their lead in seven games to lose the Finals. In that Finals, Johnson would show he was made for the big moment and would average 16.6 points, five rebounds, and three assists per game, showing what was to come in his promising career.

In his third year in the league, he would grow into a full blown star by making his All-Star debut, improving his scoring average to 15.9 points per game, compared to 12.7 the year prior. He became the leader and best player of the Sonics alongside his backcourt running mate in Gus Williams and would help lead them to the top of the Pacific Division and eventually into the Finals again against the team that beat them the previous year in the Bullets.

Johnson would lead the Sonics over the Bullets in the 1979 NBA Finals in five games, ultimately winning the Finals MVP where he averaged 28.6 points per game. Johnson wasn’t done winning in his career, as he would go on to win two more titles with those legendary 80s Celtics teams (1984, 1986) with Bird, McHale, and Parrish, forming one of the best teams of all time.

He was a defensive maven sent from heaven for basketball coaches who preached defense, stifling some of the league's best stars, such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Clyde Drexler, and so on.

His quick hands and feet made him a constant threat to strip the ball from opponents, always seeming to be in the right spot when you needed him to be, I mean does Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals against the Detroit Pistons ring a bell? DJ had it all in his repertoire, he could post you up, crash the boards, hit the outside shot, and lead the fast break. He also was a solid passer, averaging five assists per game in his career.

DJ is a three-time champion, five-time All-Star, the 1979 Finals MVP, two-time All-NBA selection, and a nine-time All-Defensive selection. He has his No.3 retired by the Celtics and is one of the best defenders and guards in league history.

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