John Stockton, The Greatest Point Guard Of All-Time

John “Stock” Stockton was a professional basketball player in the NBA from 1984-2003, all of his seasons were spent playing for the Utah Jazz. He played the position of point guard and was responsible for organizing his team’s offensive efforts on the court while implementing his coach’s strategy. A point guard typically handles the ball more than any other player on the team, which requires an advanced dribbling ability. They are tasked with finding open players and getting the ball to them in stride for the best possible shot. This requires an excellent field of vision, quick reflexes, and an intimate knowledge of both offensive and defensive strategies. The point guard is also usually the smallest player on the court. Plying their trade against veritable giants that can be over a foot taller than them, with a longer reach and stride, isn’t easy. Yet, many of them, such as Stockton, have still managed to achieve a high level of success. He wasn’t the most athletic, he wasn’t big, and he wasn’t the fastest, strongest, or smartest. However, he learned to use his strengths to his advantage and to make up for his shortcomings in other ways…big ways. In the following paragraphs I will attempt to highlight his areas of strength, both physical and mental, and why I believe they help make John Stockton the greatest point guard of all-time.

Heart:

“I never felt I was better than anybody, but I always felt I could compete with anybody.” – John Stockton

Listed at just 6′ 1″ tall and weighing 170 lbs, Stockton was far from being physically imposing. His lack of size, coupled with his average speed, limited him offensively. He couldn’t back down players in the paint for an easy shot like the 6′ 9″, 215lb Magic Johnson, who was also a point guard, could. Nor could he blow by defenders with foot speed and an insanely quick crossover dribble like Allen Iverson did. However, much like Larry Bird, John Stockton used ingenuity and creativity in getting his shots. This helped him achieve seasons where he averaged as much as 17.2 points per game, which is much higher than the average player.

Using screens set by his big-men, such as Karl Malone, Stockton would shed his defender to allow himself an open jump shot or to penetrate the lane more easily. Not only could this strategy provide him with opportunities to get off his own shots, but it also gave him more opportunities to find open teammates. With Stockton being the unselfish, pass-first player he was, this was likely his main goal. This strategy meant that he had to stay in motion, always running and weaving through defensive players. Even though the screens set by his big-men meant he could shed his defender, it often resulted in the defender of his big-man switching over to him. This gave him an advantage of speed and quickness over the larger, lumbering defender, but their greater height usually took away any chance at a jump shot. In answer to this problem, Stockton would typically use this as an opportunity to drive the lane, trying to get past and out-maneuver the bigger defender. Creativity and ingenuity were needed to do this, as he was still at a great height and reach disadvantage. Not only that, but during the 1980’s and 90’s defenders were allowed to be much more physical than their modern day counterparts. With Stockton being at such a size disadvantage while driving the lane, this inevitably meant he was going to get knocked around by the big guys in the paint…often hitting the floor hard as he was knocked down.

When watching him play, it wasn’t an uncommon sight to see Stockton hitting the floor. Whether by diving for a loose ball or getting knocked down by a larger defender, he and the hardwood floor were well-acquainted. Stockton always popped back up, however, and continued pursuing the play in whatever way was needed. Even though he slowed down a bit as he aged and drove the lane less frequently, instead preferring to take more jump shots, his motor, his heart, never gave up.

All-Time Assists Leader:

“I just play. I’m not one to think about it. If I get one assist and we win, that’s great. Otherwise, I could care less.” – John Stockton

As mentioned previously, John Stockton was a uniquely unselfish player. Though he was capable of averaging 20 or more points per game, his pass first mentality kept him from doing so. This is unique in a league where scoring is coveted above all else. In basketball, an assist is a pass that plays a pivotal role in the receiving player scoring a basket. This can be a pass that leads the receiver into a layup or finds an open man for a jump shot. A successful assist usually requires accuracy, as players shoot better when they receive the ball where they like it, and creativity, due to the necessity of avoiding defenders. Accurately passing to a player while they are running can be especially tricky because the pass needs to help lead the receiver into an easy motion for the shot. Stockton was a highly accurate passer, but accuracy isn’t the only aspect of accumulating assists. Good court vision, the ability to see the entire field of play, is crucial in making a good point guard. John seemingly had the vision of a fly, seeing all around him, even behind. Besides this, an intimate knowledge of offensive and defensive strategy is also important. A point guard like Stockton knew where his teammates were going to be before they even arrived into position and also knew where the defenders would be depending on the defensive system the opposing team was running.

During his 19 seasons in the NBA, Stockton lead the league in total assists in a season nine straight times. The legendary Bob Cousy has the second most consecutive seasons of doing this with eight. However, after he and Stockton, the next closest are Oscar Robertson, Jason Kidd, and Steve Nash. All of them are hall of fame players, but even they could only lead the league in total assists for three straight seasons. Stockton also has the record for most assists in a single season with 1,164. In fact, if we were to take a look at the top 10 single season assist totals, Stockton would occupy seven of those slots. We wouldn’t get to a different name until we were down to fifth on the list, which is Isiah Thomas with 1,123. Magic Johnson, who is widely regarded as perhaps the greatest point guard of all-time, doesn’t even make this top-ten list. The single season record for assists per game is also held by Stockton. During the 1989-90 season he averaged a whopping 14.54 assists per game! Not only that, but he did this while also notching an average of 17.2 points per game. Considering that most point guards are doing well if they average 7-8 assists and 10-15 points per game, Stockton’s achievement is all the more impressive.

By the end of his career Stockton had amassed a grand total of 15,806 assists, a league record by a wide margin. With over 3,000 fewer assists, Jason Kidd has the next highest total with 12,091. Yes, John had a career that was longer than average, but so did other top-rated point guards. Like Stockton, Jason Kidd played 19 seasons and Steve Nash played 18. I consider his all-time assist total record to be his crowning achievement. It is a testament to his consistency, reliability, and unselfish play.

All-Time Steals Leader:

“If you start chasing around trying to get steals for your own benefit, then you really put your defense at a disadvantage. It’s not a big thing for me; if it happens, great.” – John Stockton

Good defense is something that is tough to play. The very nature of it dictates that a defender be largely reactive to what the offensive player is doing. This, more often than not, leaves the defensive player a step or two behind the player they are guarding. It can also be quite tiresome as many offensive players will run their defenders into screens or around other defenders. John Stockton was known as a clever and tenacious defender. This was proven by him being selected to all-defensive teams five times, an honor that most players never receive once. He didn’t have the fastest feet, but his hands were deceptively quick. This helped him in harassing other players when they were dribbling the basketball. If John was guarding you, and you had the ball in your possession, it was very unwise to relax. He was also good at predicting when an offensive player was going to pass the ball. This ability enabled him to either intercept, or tip away, a high number of passes.

Stockton was such a proficient on-ball defender, that by the end of his career he had become the NBA’s all-time leader in career steals with a total of 3,265. He accumulated more steals than celebrated defenders such as Michael Jordan (2,514), Gary Payton (2,445), and Scottie Pippen (2,307). Some of this is due to Stockton’s longevity, but in his defense, he also led the NBA in steals per game and total number of steals two times. This shows that he wasn’t mediocre in this regard, but was capable of league-leading performance. Also, the celebrated defenders previously listed spent quite a long time in the NBA as well. Jordan played for 15 seasons, Pippen for 17, and Payton for 18. Despite this, Stockton’s steals total is 700 or more higher than what these other players have managed. Clearly, Stockton’s steals totals are more a result of skill than number of years in the league.

Loyalty:

“I love to play, and I appreciate the opportunity to be part of a good organization.” – John Stockton

This value has become somewhat of a novel idea, on the part of both the teams and the players. However, John Stockton spent all 19 seasons of his career playing for the Utah Jazz. The 10 time all-star surely could have gotten more money elsewhere, as a top-notch point guard is always in demand. Loyalty to a good franchise, and/or city, will always elevate a player in my estimation. It requires dedication, discipline, and commitment, especially during the times of struggle. With the Jazz losing to Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls in the playoffs multiple times, there were certainly times of struggle and frustration. Kudos to John Stockton for sticking with the Utah Jazz during the ups and downs.

Physical Toughness:

“I don’t like to give in to injuries. I don’t like to use them as excuses. Everybody has them.” – John Stockton

An NBA season spans 82 games, which are typically played in about six months. Most players rarely, if ever, play in every game of the season. Injuries, general wear and tear, and exhaustion all play a role in limiting players in this regard. Yet John Stockton played in 82 games during 15 of his 18 seasons! At one point he played all 82 games seven consecutive times. Of the three seasons he didn’t play in 82 games, one of them was shortened to 50 by a lockout (he played in all 50), another season he missed just four games and the remaining season he missed 18 games. In total, he played in 1,504 games out of a total possible of 1,526. Meaning he only missed 22 games during his 19 year career! To further illustrate the level of this achievement, LeBron James, who is considered to be a dedicated and durable player, has only played in all 82 games in one of his 17 seasons and 1,258 of a possible 1,375 over his career thus far. Even at the age of 40, long past the average age of retirement for NBA players, Stockton was showing up for work. This fact leads nicely into my next point, work ethic.

Strong Work Ethic:

“Essentially, when you join a team, you’re making a commitment to your team. You can’t take that lightly.” – John Stockton

Throughout his career, Stockton maintained an intense work ethic. It helped to strengthen his physical toughness and contributed greatly to his improvement as a player. He was a humble player and always remembered where he came from, saying, “I’m a bartender’s son. Some things you never forget.” John didn’t get offers from prestigious schools and therefore didn’t get a lot of exposure while in college. He played for Gonzaga, which is more well-known today than it was in previous decades. This meant that Stockton had a lower chance of being drafted by an NBA team. When he was told that he was projected to be selected in the fourth of 10 rounds, he was more than content. Yet, he went on to be selected in the first round with the 16th pick overall. However, this never seemed to matter much to him, as he always remembered that he had to work to get to where he wanted to be. Stockton was also a committed teammate that wanted no part in letting those around him down, and was well aware of his limitations as a player. When he first came into the league he had to earn a starting spot, “I know my first years sitting on the bench, largely behind Rickey Green, was a great learning tool for me.” His admission of reality, and his humble upbringing, largely spent in competition with his brother, all helped to motivate him toward a work ethic that would put most others to shame.

As I have been searching through photos of him for this article, I have noticed that none of them show Stockton smiling while on the court. I believe this reinforces what has been said about him taking his work as a basketball player seriously. Rumor has it that he treated basketball very much as a job, showing up to put in the time and work that he owed the company. The only exception came in regards to interviews with the press. In his book, “Karl Malone: Special Delivery,” Karl Malone describes how John Stockton would often duck the press by sneaking out after practices and games. Apparently, he didn’t like all of the attention that came with being a famous basketball player.

In Closing:

The debate of who exactly is the greatest point guard of all-time will continue to rage for many years to come. Some will name Magic Johnson as the greatest, others might say Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, or Bob Cousy. None of these players are poor choices, as they all brought different strengths and abilities to their teams. However, due to his heart, passing ability, unselfish play, tough defense, loyalty, and work ethic…my pick as the greatest point guard of all-time is John “Stock” Stockton.

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