Johnson hits his target even while aiming high : UCSB star now shines for Pacers

Orlando Johnson (Photo by Paul Sherman)
Orlando Johnson (Photo by Paul Sherman)



Orlando Johnson was supposedly the right man in the wrong sport.

He was a 6-foot-5 high school basketball center that even the college recruiters thought was better suited for football.

Johnson would roam near the basket while others at Salinas' Palma High handled the ball - and he'd make layups, not 3-pointers, when they got it to him.

But even then, young O.J. was telling anyone who'd listen that he was aiming high and far for the NBA.

"Many people didn't think I could do it," he said.

He spent the next five years remaking himself into the highest-scoring basketball player in UCSB history, even playing some point guard, before getting picked in the second round of last June's NBA Draft.

And yet, even Johnson was caught off guard when he walked into Boston Garden on the morning of Jan. 4, having just been summoned by the Indiana Pacers from their NBA Development League team.

It felt like he was entering the Garden of Eden.

"I told myself, 'Man, this is crazy,'" Johnson said.

He was still in a bit of a dream state, having caught a 4:30 a.m. ride to the Fort Wayne, Ind., airport to make the 6 o'clock to Boston. He had to hurry to catch up with the Pacers for their morning shoot-around.

"I grew up loving to watch the Celtics and rooting for them, and now here I was, getting ready to play against them," Johnson said.

He went from awestruck to ready to strike when coach Frank Vogel summoned him from the end of the bench during the fourth quarter, with the Pacers hopelessly behind.

"He said, 'Show me what you've got, kid,'" Johnson recalled.

He promptly showed him a fadeaway, drilling it over Boston's Paul Pierce for his first NBA points. He added two free throws and a 3-pointer before the night was through.

By the time the Pacers were in the midst of a four-game sweep on a western road swing last week - with Johnson getting 12 points and three assists in Thursday's win at Dallas - sports-talk guru Jim Rome was asking about his fellow UCSB alumnus.

"Orlando Johnson is a rookie that a lot of people probably don't know about," Vogel told Rome after the win over the Mavs, "but he's had just a terrific second half of the season."

Johnson, who shot just 26 percent during the NBA Summer League and 20 percent in five exhibition games, made good use of his time in exile at Fort Wayne and at the end of the Pacers' bench.

And Vogel noticed the way he'd pay attention.

"When you're speaking to a group, there's one or two guys in the room who are nodding in agreement on every single word you say, and Orlando Johnson is that kind of guy," he said during Friday's "The Jim Rome Show," "He picks up everything you teach him and he implements it and takes it out on the court.

"When you correct somebody else, he learns from those mistakes, as well. ... Every time he's on the court, whether it's five minutes or 15 minutes off the bench, he comes in and gives us a spark and makes what we call system plays, positive basketball plays that help us win games."

The Pacers have won more games this season than everyone in the Eastern Conference except Miami and New York. And now Orlando Johnson, once a misplaced football player, has found his place in Indiana's regular rotation, averaging 4.2 points with a 3-point percentage of 42.9.

"I definitely feel I earned my way onto the court," he said. "I knew from the beginning of training camp that nothing was going to be given to me, that I had to go out and work and take what I could.

"I just knew that if I stuck with it, they'd eventually see that I'd be ready to play."

Johnson isn't ready to settle, either, as he looks ahead to his NBA future.

"I'm going to stay on my routine and come back a different type of player next year," he promised. "I'm going to keep improving so one day I'll be playing at an all-star level."

He's been helped along the way by Pacers associate head coach Brian Shaw, another UCSB grad who played 14 seasons in the NBA before joining Phil Jackson's staff with the Lakers.

"He's been critical to my development at this level," Johnson said. "I've really got to thank coach for all the time he's spent with me, talking to me about the game. ... Just the little things.

"He's showed me different footwork drills, and broken some things down that I didn't quite understand when I first got here. He'll tell me, 'If you want to be this type of player, here's what you have to start doing.'"

Johnson has become such a disciple of Shaw's that he's checked out some of the old UCSB videos from the late 1980s.

"I could see that when he was playing with the Gauchos, they definitely had the Thunderdome going," he said.

"We went to the same college and we already have that mutual love for each other," Johnson continued. "He sees in me a young player who really wants to succeed, and if you're willing to listen, he definitely wants to help you."

Johnson was getting some strong feelings of deja vu when he arrived at Shaw's old Laker stomping grounds at the Staples Center for last Monday's game against the Los Angeles Clippers.

He'd been there once before, during his sophomore year at UCSB, while spending an off-day with teammate D.J. Posley to catch a Lakers game against the then-New Orleans Hornets.

"I was a big fan of David West, who was playing for New Orleans before Indiana got him, and we went down to the court to talk to him after the game," he recalled. "I just wanted to pick his brain a little bit, find out what it takes to become such a dominating all-star."

When Johnson joined the Pacers this year, he asked West about their earlier meeting.

"He said he didn't remember meeting me," he said.

Orlando Johnson had to laugh. He's been transforming himself from a basketball nobody his entire life.