We’ve seen a ton of elite-level passing in the WNBA this season. Combine that with some of the best scorers the league has ever seen, and the assists start to rack up. Four of the top seven all-time assist-per-game leaders are active in the league currently. Courtney Vandersloot and Sue Bird, both averaging about 5.55 assists per-game over their careers, are behind only Ticha Penicheiro (5.72). Lindsay Whalen (4.94) and Skylar Diggins-Smith (4.87) are sixth and seventh, respectively. Teresa Weatherspoon (5.27) and Dawn Staley (5.08) fill in the gap. Just last night, Vandersloot had 15 assists en route to a triple-double, creeping up on Penicheiro’s WNBA record of 16 (which she achieved twice!).
That said, if you peruse any of the league assist leader boards, you’ll come across a name that we don’t talk about as much as we should: Shannon Johnson. Better known to fans as “Pee Wee”, Johnson finished her 11-year WNBA career with 1,424 assists (8th) and an average of 4.05 per-game (15th). A five-time All-Star and Olympic gold medalist, her story is a fascinating one to follow.
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From small-town Hartsville, South Carolina, Shannon Johnson faced hardship. Growing up in Lincoln Village apartments in Hartsville, Johnson was raised by her aunt for her first six years until her mother was able to regain custody and provide for her and two siblings. Johnson has said that growing up in a small town saved her from the distractions of a bigger city, and she quickly found her love for sports. She first played volleyball in sixth grade, and as the shortest player on the team, that was where she first was given the nickname “Pee Wee”, a moniker that would stick with the 5’7 guard through her professional career.
In seventh grade, she began playing basketball and was playing for the high school JV team by the following year. During her time with the high school team playing point guard, Coach Patricia Hewitt worked closely with Johnson to develop her skill and maturity; they practiced under a sign in the gym that read “Dedication, Determination & Desire,” and the hard work led to AAAA state championships in 1990 and 1992.
Johnson stayed close to home, playing college ball an hour southwest of Hartsville in Columbia at the University of South Carolina. The Gamecocks struggled in their first years in the SEC under legendary coach Nancy Wilson. The team struggled for conference wins during her time there, but Shannon left a legacy for the women’s basketball team:
- Her 24.7 PPG in 1995-96 stands as the highest scoring average in program history.
- Her 2,230 points is third-best in program history, behind A’ja Wilson (2,389) and Sheila Foster (2,266), though it should be noted that Johnson played just 109 games as compared to Wilson’s 138 and Foster’s 134. Her career average of 20.4 points per-game is still a program record.
- She knocked down 9 three-point field goals against Arizona State in 1995, a record only matched once in program history since (Jordan Jones in ’08).
- She is still top 10 in assists and assist average with 467 total for an average of 4.3 assists per-game in her four years.
- Johnson is also top 10 in steals (260) and steal average (2.4).
By the time she left Columbia, Shannon was a three-time all-SEC player, AP All-American in 1995-96, and a finalist for the Wade Trophy. During this time, she also helped the USA’s Jones Cup team to a 9-0 finish for gold in 1996, followed by a 6-0 record good for a gold medal at the World University Games in 1997.
Coming out of college in 1996, there was not yet a WNBA to play in, so her professional career began overseas and in the ABL. During her 12-year overseas career, she played in Spain, Italy, Turkey, Poland, and Russia, including two championships in Spain — including a Queen’s Cup MVP honor in 2002 — and a 2008 Queen Cup Championship in Italy.
Stateside, Johnson was drafted by the Columbus Quest in the inaugural year of the ABL, and she would remain with the team for the duration of the league, winning championships in 1997 and again in 1998. She was also named an ABL All-Star in 1998. She was coached by Brian Agler, now head coach of the Los Angeles Sparks, and played with the likes of Tonya Edwards and Katie Smith. Johnson and Smith would meet up again in the next chapters of their professional playing careers.
As the WNBA had officially outlasted the ABL, Johnson joined the league and was assigned to the Orlando Miracle in the 1999 WNBA Draft. This was the first year for the Miracle under head coach Carolyn Peck, coming off of leading the Purdue women’s basketball team to a national championship.
In her first season in Orlando, Shannon started all 32 games, averaging 35.8 minutes, 14.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 1.6 steals, making her mark as a solid two-way guard in the league and earning her a spot as a reserve in the WNBA’s first All-Star game at Madison Square Garden along with teammates Nykesha Sales and Taj McWilliams (now McWilliams-Franklin, assistant coach for the Dallas Wings). She led the East along with McWilliams and Sandy Brondello, each scoring eight points.
Johnson remained with Orlando the next three years, getting her career high scoring average of 16.1 PPG in 2002. She also had 5.3 assists per-game in 2000 and 2002, but her career high in that category wouldn’t come until the team moved to Connecticut and became the Sun in 2003. That year she started all 34 games, averaging 5.8 assists and 12.4 points. She earned All-Star nods again in 2000, 2002, and 2003, and she was named to the All-WNBA Second Team in 1999, 2000, and 2002.
Prior to the 2004 season, Shannon was traded to the San Antonio Silver Stars. That year would prove to be perhaps the biggest in Johnson’s basketball story. Though she could not have known the future Gamecock connection, Shannon has said that future Hall of Fame point guard Dawn Staley was a role model for her, and after playing a pivotal role for the gold medal-winning World Championship team in 2002, she joined Staley on the 2004 Olympic team. The two played together in Athens, where they won another gold medal for the United States. Prior to the Games, she was featured in a WNBA.com profile detailing her accomplishments up to that point.
Johnson’s career continued in San Antonio for three years total until she signed with the Detroit Shock in 2007, reuniting with Katie Smith. Coming off a WNBA Championship, the Shock made another run to the WNBA Finals where they fell to the juggernaut Phoenix Mercury. Unfortunately, as a reserve, Johnson’s minutes (16.9 per-game) and production dropped significantly, but she got another chance the following year, playing for the Houston Comets.
In what would be the final season for the Comets, Johnson started 32 of 33 games, averaging 30.7 minutes and 7.7 points and rocketing back up to 5.1 assists per-game. After Houston folded, Johnson became a free agent and signed with the Seattle Storm, playing her final year for the coach she started out playing for, Brian Agler. Finishing off her career coming off the bench, her statistics went down, but her impression on her teammates and the fans was still huge as shown in this video from the time of her retirement:
She wrapped up her career with 352 games played and career averages of 10.1 PPG off of 39.5% shooting along with 4.0 APG and 1.4 SPG. Her name is still all over the WNBA leader boards:
|Statistic||Career Value||Career Standing|
|Assists Per Game||4.0||#15|
|Free Throw Attempts||1,332||#17|
|Steals Per Game||1.4||#21|
Post-WNBA, Johnson was an assistant women’s basketball coach at Northwestern State University for one year, and then she faced another difficult period until she got her next opportunity. In her intervening years between coaching jobs, she said, “I felt like basketball was taken away from me.” But that “Dedication, Determination & Desire” stuck with her and brought her back to Hartsville, South Carolina, where she became the head women’s basketball coach at NCAA Division II Coker College in September 2015. Kent Mahoney of the Hartsville Messenger wrote a great article on her full-circle story last February.
A small guard from a small town, Shannon “Pee Wee” Johnson’s imprint on her home city and the game of women’s basketball continues to be big.
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Career statistics courtesy of the Across the Timeline WNBA Record Index and Basketball Reference.