At this time last season, Orlando Johnson was the best player for the UCSB men’s basketball team and a hopeful candidate for the NBA draft. Fast forward a year and Johnson is a thriving role player for the Indiana Pacers and has shown he can play with the big boys in the NBA.
While he has only played in 30 of the Pacers’ 60 games this season, Johnson has received playing time in 24 straight games for Indiana, emerging as an important role player in the process, averaging 3.4 points and 1.9 rebounds per game.
“We’re really proud of him. He’s one of the great Gauchos ever and the fact that he’s having success in his rookie year with the Pacers is a really positive thing,” UCSB men’s basketball Head Coach Bob Williams said. “It also bodes well towards him being a viable candidate to get contract number two and have a long extended NBA career.”
Johnson was drafted in the second round by the Sacramento Kings with the 36th overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft and was immediately traded to Indiana where former UCSB great Brian Shaw is an assistant coach. While playing time was slow for Johnson in the beginning of the season, he improved his game by playing for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the NBA D-League.
Soon after he received a shot at playing time, Johnson earned a spot in the rotation thanks to his excellent three-point shooting. Johnson currently leads the Pacers from behind the arc, shooting .500 on the season, a team high.
“He’s a very good three-point shooter, but he also was swarmed all the time, double-teamed and guarded and he was the focus every game we went into,” Williams said. “Now he’s getting to play on a team that has all-stars on it and a lot of other really good players and he’s a role player that gets to come in. He’s always had great range on his shot.”
Johnson left UCSB as the school’s all-time leading scorer in just three seasons of play, so it comes as no surprise to Gauchos to see Johnson score. He emerged in Indiana’s rotation in large part to an injury to Danny Granger, eclipsing veterans Gerald Green and Sam Young for time.
The fact that he is also contributing on a team that is in playoff contention only makes Johnson’s emergence in the NBA that much more impressive. Indiana currently holds a 38-22 record, second best in the Eastern Conference behind only defending champion Miami.
During the month of February, Johnson averaged 4.6 points and 2.2 rebounds per game while shooting .531 from behind the arc. On Feb. 22, he registered a career-high 14 points and 23 minutes of playing time in a 114-82 victory over the Pistons. Johnson was a perfect 5-5 from the field, including 3-3 from three-point range.
“Nobody will work harder at their game; nobody will work harder at the trade than Orlando,” Williams said. “He’s not physically going to get a lot better; he’s a big strong man already. Where he’s going to get a lot better is the concepts of the NBA game, how they play it. If that happens, he’s going to get a lot more valuable. I think he’ll always be a role player in the NBA. That’s really valuable and that’s really good if you can be an NBA role player.”
A version of this article appeared on page 9 of March 6th, 2013′s print edition of the Daily Nexus.