You got to hand it to Avery Johnson. The man won an NBA championship with the Spurs and was NBA Coach of the Year with the Mavericks. He’s been a winner at the highest level of basketball. But that didn’t stop him from taking the head-coaching gig at a football-obsessed university in the SEC.
We’re talking, of course, about Alabama.
“You just couldn’t bring anybody in this program, especially with the overwhelming success of football,” Johnson said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “So they decided to go down the same route and hire somebody that had some experience in the professional ranks. Obviously Nick Saban was with the Dolphins before he came here. It’s been great. Coach Saban and I have a strong relationship. He often says I’ve met with him more in a year than other (coaches) have met with him in 10 years. So we meet a lot, we talk a lot about sports, we talk a lot about leadership and student-athletes and education and practice habits. It’s been great. I attend every football game I can possibly attend. When Coach Saban came off the stage after the national championship game, I was one of the first ones to greet him. So it’s not really about basketball being in the shadows of football. We just want to partner with football and see if we can help each other.”
The Tide went 18-15 in Johnson’s first season, ultimately losing to Creighton in the first round of the NIT. Not bad for a program two years removed from a 13-19 campaign.
By virtue of coaching in the SEC, Johnson got an up-close-and-personal look at Ben Simmons, who in June was drafted No. 1 overall by the Philadelphia 76ers. Some people are already comparing the 6-10 Simmons to LeBron James, but come on. Isn’t that way over the top?
“I don’t necessarily think it’s way over the top,” said Johnson, whose squad split two games with LSU this past season. “I think the problem in this society now, especially with social media – and we did it pre-social media – we just always want to compare current NBA rookies to somebody in the past. Ben Simmons just needs to be Ben Simmons. Does he have some of the gifts that LeBron has (in terms of) being able to see the floor and handle the ball and great size? Is he kind of like LeBron, a position-less player? Yeah. But I think Ben Simmons has a chance to make his own mark. He has a chance to be one of the top defensive players as the years go on because I think he’ll be good on the ball, off the ball, unbelievable rebounder – I think he’ll be able to block shots at any position and he’ll develop a better jump shot. His jump shot is definitely not flawed-looking. His mechanics are pretty good. I don’t think we necessarily have to compare him to LeBron. Let’s let him be Ben Simmons and he’ll make his own mark.”
Johnson, 51, was also asked about Tim Duncan, with whom he played from 1997 to 2001. Duncan, 40, retired Monday after 19 NBA seasons and is considered by many the top power forward of all time.
“We love to throw this word ‘superstar’ around, and we kind of attach that word to people who really don’t deserve it,” Johnson said. “Tim Duncan was a superstar – but more than anything, he was a selfless superstar. He was a man of humility. He cared more about winning than individual accolades. But you’re talking about competitive spirit. Other guys are boisterous on the floor and trying to draw a lot of attention to themselves by foaming at the mouth and whatever they do with all of their different hand gyrations – Tim was a competitive guy, man. He didn’t show it a lot on his face, but he was a winner. He was a force on the court, but it (started) in practice. His practice habits were consistent. You come early, stay late, watch a ton of film. He was also a builder of men in terms of building up his teammates and not tearing them down. What an incredible career. Nineteen years in San Antonio with the same coach. Five championships. What George Gervin started and David Robinson took the baton from George, Tim Duncan took it to an entirely different level.”