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Spurs 50 for 50, number 26: Avery Johnson

The Little General was more than just a good leader.

Indiana Pacers v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

This year the Spurs are celebrating their 50th season in San Antonio. There have been many highs and a few lows. One trademark of the San Antonio Spurs has been their culture and their consistency. The keys to those qualities lie in their players. Always noted for development as well as being ahead of the curve on scouting international players, the Spurs way has made the franchise one of the most successful of all time. As we look back on the Silver & Black, we recognize the top 50 players in Spurs history. Each day, we will move up the countdown.

26 - Avery Johnson

It’s surprisingly easy to mythologize Avery Johnson. For many, he’s the best thing a player can be: a True Point Guard, a leader who earned the respect of more heralded players due to his character. No one gave him anything, as he went undrafted and toiled on several teams before finding success his third time around in San Antonio. He’s a symbol of the value of hard work and conviction.

The problem with thinking about Johnson this way is that it can lead to ignoring that he was actually a pretty good player. The Little General still has the record for most assists averaged in a season in Division I basketball, with the 13.3 per game that he posted in 1988, and is in the top 50 of all time in total assists in the NBA. As a 5’10” guard who couldn’t shoot from outside, he still managed to average double-digit points with the Spurs in his most successful run, and despite being a pass-first player, he made one of the most important shots in franchise history, against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden in Game 5 of the 1999 NBA Finals.

Johnson wouldn’t have made it as far as he did in the NBA without his leadership and understanding of the game, much less to the rafters of the AT&T Center, so it’s not a surprise that those traits are mentioned the most often when he’s brought up. What made him special isn’t really quantifiable or easily observed, and that’s fine. But there are two issues that come with the effort to exult those attributes that characterized him. First, if being a True Point Guard is admirable in and of itself, those who don’t conform to that archetype are going to be criticized, as young Tony Parker learned. Second, and more relevant to this tribute, it’s painfully easy to forget that Johnson could actually play.

Johnson’s leadership and character have been highlighted almost every time he’s been mentioned in these types of discussions, and there will be opportunities in the future to do that again. Just this time, let’s enjoy watching the Little General drive to the rack and dish out assists instead.

Next up: a Bruise Brother gets his flowers.

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