Orlando Johnson got groomed for NBA Draft

Orlando Johnson (Photo by Tony Mastres)
Orlando Johnson (Photo by Tony Mastres)

On the eve of the NBA Draft - a day that Orlando Johnson admits to having anticipated ever since he got big enough to reach a 10-foot rim with a basketball - UCSB's all-time leading scorer visited a barber.

The haircut wasn't so he could preen for television. He won't be in New Jersey for today's draft, which starts at 4 p.m. Pacific time.

Johnson doesn't even plan to arrive for his own family's TV viewing party in Seaside until after his name is called.

The hours before then will be spent in agonizing solitude.

But the angel in Orlando Johnson is about the details, all the way down to getting every hair in place.

"I feel I gave this everything I had, and I can rest my head at night knowing that I did that," he said. "I'm not really nervous or anything, or feeling any certain way about it.

"Whether my name is going to be called or not, I don't know - it'll just be the way it is. But what I do know, in my heart, is that I gave it a good shot."

That heart has always been large, helping Johnson overcome the murder of his mother when he was a toddler and the death of the grandmother who raised him when he was only 11.

"It'd be tough to find a better person in the draft," UCSB coach Bob Williams said. "We got a lot of calls about him for about a month, NBA teams inquiring about him as a kid, as a leader, things like that.

"Well, if they're looking for someone with character, they'd sure have the right guy in Orlando."

He had two older brothers, Robbie Johnson and Jamell Damon, who helped make that happen, becoming more like fathers when their grandmother died.

"They helped me all along the way, showed me the right way to do things, instilled the work ethic that I needed to get here," Johnson said.

His diligence has been elevating his NBA stock ever since he made his last basket as a battered and weary Gaucho three months ago. His name was left off many of the mock draft lists in March, but his prospects have changed just as much as his 6-foot-5 frame.

"I'm feeling lighter on my feet, more athletic, more dynamic," he said. "I've been working out and getting my body in the right shape, and getting the right nutrition."

And now Johnson's name graces nearly every mock draft, with both Inside Hoops and Hoops World projecting him as the first-round pick of the Oklahoma City Thunder at No. 28. Sporting News predicts that the Chicago Bulls will make him the 29th pick.

The Thunder would be obligated to sign Johnson to a two-year contract worth $1,765,400. A first-round call from the Bulls, meanwhile, would be worth a guaranteed $1,752,600 over two years.

Five other basketball websites are predicting that Johnson will be taken by the Charlotte Bobcats at No. 31 - the first pick of the second round - which would guarantee him nothing. Others have him going in the second round to either the Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, Milwaukee Bucks, Detroit Pistons or Utah Jazz.

But Johnson claims to know none of that.

"No, I haven't read any of it, because it's not coming from the GMs," he said, referring to NBA general managers. "I don't really listen to any of it because it's just a few people's opinions about what's going to happen. Nobody actually knows where anybody is going until tomorrow night.

"But I do feel really good about where I'm at right now."

Johnson made a controversial decision to pass on a pair of post-season, college all-star games so he could heal and train his body.

"As much as I would've loved it, to get a chance to represent UCSB and go out there and keep playing, I knew there were bigger things at stake," he said.

Johnson trained at Santa Barbara's P3 (the Peak Performance Project) and began a low-carb diet.

"No bread, a lot of water and fruits and lean meat," Johnson said. "Things like that."

In three months, his weight dipped from 235 pounds to 220. His one-step jump, meanwhile, increased from 32 inches to an eye-popping 39 - second-best at the first NBA combine, which was held in New Jersey.

He made a good first impression all the way around.

"It was a combination of playing well and testing well," Johnson said. "We played 5-on-5 games there, and I think I did pretty well."

NBA teams began flying him in for individual workouts - so many, in fact, that he lost count.

"I know my frequent flyer mileage is up," he said.

But he wanted to be home today, reflecting on how far he's come.

"I wasn't overly tall as a kid," Johnson said. "I didn't have fast feet or great jumping ability or anything like that back then.

"But what I had were good people showing me the way - good brothers, good coaches - and the belief that you can get anything you want if you just work hard enough for it."

It's what helped his head rest easy Wednesday night, fresh haircut and all.

Mark Patton's column appears on Thursday and Saturday. Email: mpatton@newspress.com