If ever a player picked a bad time to dominate the NBA, it was Neil Johnston. He rose to prominence as George Mikan’s Minneapolis Lakers dynasty came to a close. He faded as Bill Russell began constructing a new one in Boston. Dynasties get the glory, interregnums gets a shoulder shrug.
His place in the mid-1950s, if only a placeholder, was still pretty remarkable.
For three straight seasons, he led the NBA in points per game with his ability to nail sweeping hook shots with either hand. So dependable was his hook shot that he also led the NBA in field goal percentage three times, although not consecutively. He was the finest, most dependable offensive weapon in the mid-1950s NBA with the exception perhaps of his Philadelphia Warriors teammate, Paul Arizin.
However, Arizin and Johnston’s mighty formation as an offensive one-two punch didn’t instantly congeal. In Johnston’s rookie season (1951-52), Arizin led the entire NBA in scoring while Neil mostly sat on the bench. He averaged a scant 6 points per game. The next season, Arizin was drafted by the Marines, and Johnston was given all the playing time he could hope for on a Warriors team that was left pretty atrocious without Arizin. Joe Fulks was well past his prime and most other players on the team never had one.
It was in this landscape that Johnston worked his hook shot magic.
And it would be easy to say he simply scored lots of points on awful teams, but when Paul Arizin returned in time for the 1954-55 season Johnston maintained his exact excellent level of play. Without Arizin, Johnston scored 23.5 points per game with 12.5 rebounds in a staggering 45.5 minutes per game. With Arizin, Johnston scored 22 points with 13 rebounds in a more leisurely 37 minutes per game.
The Warriors quickly added more depth and by 1956 they were title contenders. Securing the NBA’s best regular season record, the Warriors survived a see-saw series with the Syracuse Nationals in the Eastern Division Finals. Johnston pulled his weight with titanic performances like Game 2 (43 points) and Game 4 (35 points).
Defeating the Nats 3-games-to-2, the Warriors dispatched the Fort Wayne Pistons 4-games-to-1 in the NBA Finals. Johnston had a somewhat disappointing series, but the Warriors could now survive if he had an off game, or an off series. Tom Gola, Joe Graboski, Jack George, and Arizin combined for a series of well-played efforts to win the NBA title.
Unfortunately, Johnston’s time at the NBA summit proved short-lived like any interregnum. Bill Russell arrived in the NBA the next year revolutionizing defense and bolstering the Boston Celtics. The Warriors and Celtics clashed in the 1958 Eastern Division Finals, but the Celtics prevailed 4-games-to-1.
A rematch never occurred for Johnston. He missed most of the 1958-59 season with a seriously injured knee that wound up costing him the rest of his playing career. Playing in just 28 games that season, Johnston was right back where his career began: 6 PPG off the bench.
But for the six seasons in between Neil was a truly terrifying offensive force that hooked his way to six All-Star Teams and four appearances on the All-NBA 1st Team. Over the course of the NBA’s 60-plus year history, only Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and, yes, Neil Johnston have led the league in points per game, rebounds per game, and field goal percentage.
So, perhaps someone had to fill in the gap between Mikan and Russell. But Johnston proved without a doubt that he wasn’t just a flavor of the month, but a talent for all times.
Years Played: 1951 – 1959
4x All-NBA 1st Team (1953-’56)
All-NBA 2nd Team (1957)
6x All-Star (1953-’58)
NBA - 516 Games
19.4 PPG, 11.3 RPG, 2.5 APG, 44.4% FG, 76.8% FT
3x PPG Leader (1953-’55), 3x FG% Leader (1953, 1956-’57)
2x MPG Leader (1953-’54), RPG Leader (1955)
Contemporary NBA Ranks (1951-52 through 1958-59 season)
3rd Points, 5th PPG
5th FGs Made, 3rd FG%
2nd FTs Made, 31st FT%
4th Rebounds, 8th RPG
16th Assists, 37th APG
10th Games Played, 7th Minutes Played