August 9, 2011

UCSB's Orlando Johnson Continues His Rapid Ascent

By Jeff Eisenberg, Yahoo Sports

Not long after Wednesday's final day of tryouts for the U.S. team that will compete in the World University Games later this month, UC Santa Barbara guard Orlando Johnson sat in his room in Colorado Springs anxiously awaiting his fate.

A knock on his door meant the USA Basketball officials were there to inform him he was one of the final two roster cuts. No knock meant his spot on the team was safe and he was officially China-bound next week.

"I didn't get a knock, so I was good to go," Johnson said with a chuckle Thursday night. "It probably won't hit me until I get on the plane and land in China because I've never been out of the country. It's going to be an amazing experience. I can't wait to put that jersey on and see that USA on it and try to win a gold medal."

That Johnson made the U.S. roster isn't a huge surprise even if he isn't a household name among fans because he doesn't play at a marquee program.

He averaged a Big West-best 21.1 points per game as a junior and shot 40.5 percent from behind the arc. Furthermore, decisions by potential preseason All-Americans Jordan Taylor of Wisconsin and Tu Holloway of Xavier not to try out for the U.S. team depleted the backcourt talent available to the coaches, lowering the bar a bit for the remaining guards.

Wearing a USA jersey on his chest is the next step for Johnson in his evolution from lightly recruited college prospect to mid-major standout to NBA draft hopeful. The 6-foot-5 senior received scant attention from top programs during his days at Palma High in Seaside, Calif. but he has proven critics wrong with his improved jump shot and relentless work ethic.

"When I started college, I was just happy to have a chance to get my degree," Johnson said. "If basketball took me somewhere, then I was going to do it, but I didn't really put much thought into it. Now that I've really been putting time into my game and really working hard, I've seen I can be one of the top players. It's crazy how fast things have changed."

Johnson entered his name in the NBA draft last spring but withdrew when it became clear he would not be a first-round pick. He's focused on improving in the areas NBA scouts told him he was lacking: ball handling, mid-range shooting and perimeter defense.

The opportunity to compete against the likes of Pittsburgh's Ashton Gibbs and Vanderbilt's John Jenkins on a day-to-day basis can only help Johnson reach his goals.

"Its' definitely helping me become a better player because you're seeing top-level competition every day," he said. "If you don't bring it, you're going to be exposed. It makes you work harder and really want to compete to try to be on the same level the other guys are on."