BY DANIEL MARKS
Johnson has developed a reputation over the last few years as being one of the hardest workers in college basketball. Coming out of high school, he was a lightly recruited player, earning only two stars from Rivals.com. He ended up signing with Loyola Marymount, but when his coach was fired after his freshman year, Johnson transferred to UCSB. Upon transferring he was required to sit out a year, and during that season really began to apply himself to the game of basketball.
"Sitting out a year really helped a lot," says Johnson. "I watched a lot of film, and I had the chance to be in the gym a lot. I really had a chance to just work on my game. Knowing that I wasn't going to play I felt like that year allowed me to grow in all aspects of my game, mentally and physically.
"I got stronger, quicker, I could jump higher, shot better. It really gave me a chance to learn the game of basketball because I played so many sports growing up. I never really just focused on basketball, so that year I definitely learned a lot of things I didn't know before that year when it was my sole focus."
While Johnson's work ethic began to show during the year he sat out, it really began during his childhood. Growing up, Johnson lost six members of his family, and he was raised by his two brothers Jamelle and Robby. He says they instilled in him the idea that he not only had to work harder than the next person, but also the best person. And since arriving at UCSB, he has personified that idea.
In his first season in Santa Barbara, Johnson averaged 18.0 points and 5.4 rebounds while helping lead the Gauchos to the NCAA Tournament. This past season, Johnson averaged 21.1 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, while again leading his team to the NCAA Tournament, losing to Florida in the first round. After the year he was named a First Team All-Big West selection, a Mid Major All-American, and he won the Big West Tournament MVP award for the second straight year. Johnson's first two seasons in Santa Barbara have been quite impressive, but his redshirt senior season has the potential to be great – potential was developed over an eventful summer.
First, Johnson made himself eligible for NBA Draft. In what was considered a down year for the draft because of the number of elite players like Harrison Barnes, Jared Sullinger and Perry Jones staying in school, many guys who were thought to potentially be borderline first-round picks declared for the draft. This list included Shelvin Mack,Jereme Richmond and DeAndre Liggins. While Johnson could have tried to stay in the draft and potentially capitalize on its lack of depth, he decided to return to school for another season. However, the reason had nothing to do with his draft stock.
"Well for me, I'm so close to graduating, I'll be done in the winter quarter, and the lockout kind of put the NBA on hold for a little bit," says Johnson without a hint of regret. "I thought the NBA, it's not going anywhere, and the chance to play college basketball and get your degree, I feel like that is a once in a lifetime opportunity. The NBA is a once in a lifetime opportunity also, but I want to make it on my time. And if I didn't get a chance to play 'cause of the lockout or whatever, I would have regretted not coming back and getting my degree."
In a day and age when many kids are making ill-advised decisions to leave school early and then face massive disappointment when they get drafted low or even go undrafted, Johnson has a good head on his shoulders. The fact that he was real about the prospects of a lockout and recognizes the uniqueness of playing college basketball – as well as getting a degree – is something that has been lost on many student-athletes. For many NBA players, college basketball is a stepping stone to the bigger, lucrative world of professional basketball and the experience of going to college is pushed aside and not enjoyed fully – but that is not the case for Orlando Johnson. His maturity and attitude toward the NBA were almost shocking, and quite impressive. Despite not going to the NBA this season, declaring for the draft allowed him to get important feedback on his game from NBA personnel.
"The primary feedback I got was to keep working on my ball handling, my mid-range game, to get after it defensively, and to try and get to the free throw line a little more – especially with me being a bigger wing," he says. "I took all that into consideration, and this summer I feel like I was really able to develop my overall game."
After the NBA Draft process was over, Johnson got back into the gym and worked on his game – but not just in Santa Barbara. In June he participated as a counselor at the Kevin Durant Skills Academy in Chicago. In July he did the same at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Akron. At these camps he worked with some of the top college and high school players in the country, and got to compete and learn from them. But participating in these two camps was not the highlight of Johnson's summer. Not even close.
In June it was announced that he had been chosen to try out for the United States' World University Games team that would participate in Shenzhen, China. Johnson was selected from a group of 23 players including Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor, Pitt's Ashton Gibbs, Vanderbilt's John Jenkins, and others. Upon arriving in Colorado Springs in July, Johnson was nervous about his chances of making the team, frequently calling his brothers who then reassured him that everything would work out. Everything certainly worked out, and more for Johnson. Not only did he make the team, but out of the hundreds of U.S. athletes participating in the Games, Johnson was chosen to be the flag bearer at the Opening Ceremonies.
"It was an honor to carry the flag and be chosen out of the hundreds of American athletes at the Games," says Johnson with pride. "It was an amazing moment to lead my country in front of all the other countries there and to be such a big part of the ceremony. It is a moment I will cherish forever."
Johnson's experience on the court was just as special for him as it was for him to carry the flag. Having averaged over 20 points per game this past season, it would have been easy for Johnson to carry an ego with him when he wasn't the focal point of the team's offense. It would have been easy for him to act frustrated with his role because scoring is what he does best. Head coach Matt Painter wanted Johnson to defend and he wanted him to rebound. Painter knew he could score, but he didn't want him to be a scorer – and that was just fine with Johnson. All he wanted to do was win, and his attitude really impressed his teammates.
"I was really impressed with how hungry Orlando was and what a positive attitude he had," says Jenkins of his teammate this summer. "We really pushed each other in practice every day and made each other better. He is a great player, but he really is an even better person. People use that expression a lot, but with Orlando it really holds true. He was one of my best friends on the team, and playing with him was great."
While Team USA finished a disappointing fifth-place after having been eliminated by Lithuania, Johnson still came home with memories that will last a lifetime. The World University Games put an appropriate finishing touch on Johnson's summer. In a summer dedicated to doing everything in his power to improve, Johnson got to spend a month working on doing things other than score (which he still does plenty of) against some of the best university players in the world.
For him, it couldn't have ended any other way. But with the end of summer begins the start of a new school year, one that includes being named to the Wooden Award list, a chance to make a third straight NCAA Tournament, but most importantly walking across the stage with a diploma in his hand. So while his fellow students work on their tan, Johnson will be spending his time in the classroom and on the court, and he wouldn't have it any other way.