The Milwaukee Bucks were a perennial contender during the late 1970s and 1980s. The Bucks possessed one of the league’s best and most versatile lineups that largely grew from the presence of three men: coach Don Nelson who found creative ways to mix and match talent, guard Sidney Moncrief, and the slinky forward Marques Johnson.
Johnson joined the Bucks in the 1977-78 season as a rookie and was an instant sensation. At 6’7″, Johnson had a great height for a small forward but was also incredibly quick on the go. He didn’t possess a tremendous range on his jump shot, but from about 18 feet in he was a marksman.
Perhaps most disheartening for opponents though was Marques’ ability to crash the offensive glass. After playing a possession of good defense and forcing a missed shot, Bucks opponents would be crushed by Johnson getting second-chance points. He was also a beast in the post, although not on post ups. Johnson was a master at spinning off his defender, catching lob passes and finishing with a dunk or layup.
Being a small forward, Marques didn’t neglect other skills. He was a superb passer, could rise up to challenge shots, and was a very good defender. In his rookie season, Marques led the Bucks to the playoffs and carried them to the semi-finals where they lost to the Denver Nuggets in seven games. Johnson was magnificent averaging 24 points, 12.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2 blocks on 55% shooting. As the Bucks assembled a better-balanced squad over the ensuing seasons, Marques wouldn’t be required to unleash that kind of titanic performance time and time again.
As with most careers, Johnson’s did experience its bumpy roads. His holdout in the 1981-82 season lasted through training camp, the preseason and the first 18 games of the 1981-82 season. Johnson did ultimately receive the raise he wanted, but the lost time meant a lackluster season. A trade to the Los Angeles Clippers allowed Johnson to “enjoy” yet another lost season of sub-par play in 1984-85.
Keep in mind these below-average seasons meant Marques scored around 16 points, grabbed 6 rebounds and dished 3.5 assists a game.
He rebounded tremendously in 1986 snagging his 5th and final All-Star appearance. The next season, though, Johnson collided with teammate Benoit Benjamin. The resulting neck injury effectively ended his career much too soon as he played in just 10 more games in a failed comeback in the 1989-90 season with Golden State.
Despite his brief nine-year career, Johnson presaged many of the tall ball-handling small forwards we’ve become accustomed to over the years from Scottie Pippen to LeBron James. Meanwhile his tenacious offensive-rebounding and second-chance scoring was reincarnated a generation later by the slithering small forward Cedric Ceballos.
Marques Johnson is proof that few things are ever truly new. Usually we just refinement and progress what’s come before us. Many of today’s small forwards owe that progressive, refined debt to Johnson, even if they don’t realize it.
Seasons Played: 1978 – 1987
All-NBA 1st Team (1979)
2x All-NBA 2nd Team (1980-’81)
5x All-Star (1979-’81, 1983, 1986)
All-Rookie 1st Team (1978)
NBA – 691 Games
20.1 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.3 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 51.8% FG, 73.9% FT