Orlando Johnson against the Celtics - January 4, 2013
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Orlando Johnson's Whirlwind Weekend

by Scott Agness

January 6th, 2013

Orlando Johnson is just a rookie, so it’s not surprising that he is at the bottom of the chain and gets shuffled around. Over the last three days, he competed in an unordinary trifecta of games, beginning in the D-League on Thursday. By Saturday night, after a road game in Boston on Friday, he had earned himself a spot in the wing rotation.

The original plan was for Johnson and fellow rookie Miles Plumlee to play two games with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, the clubs’ D-League affiliate, since playing time for them had been minimal this season. That plan however, got ripped up after Sam Young suffered a grade-two left ankle sprain in practice Thursday.

Johnson was in Fort Wayne when he first got word of Young’s injury. Initially, the Pacers wanted him to fly out to Boston Thursday night to re-join the team, instead of playing in the D-League game. Because of the travel situation and since he was already there, Johnson went ahead and played. He finished with 25 points and six assists.

Friday morning, an arranged driver picked him up a 4:30 AM and his flight took off just after 6:00. His commercial flight – not the usual team charter plane – landed in Boston around 8:30 AM, just in time to meet the team for morning shootaround.

That night, the Pacers had their worst shooting performance of the season and went down 18 to the Celtics at the end of the third quarter. With another game on tap for the next night, Coach Vogel rested his starters, which gave Johnson his first extended run in a Pacers uniform.

“Coach is always telling me, ‘be ready, be ready,” Johnson noted.

His fourth NBA game was a memorable one – playing in the Garden against the storied Celtics and going against guys like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.

“Scored my first points on (Pierce). That is definitely something that I’ll remember.”

Johnson battled at both ends. He scored his first basket as a professional and even blocked a shot. His effort after playing the entire fourth quarter didn’t go unnoticed.

“I saw enough to want to see more,” Frank Vogel said prior to Saturday’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks. “He looked like he belonged.”

The rookie’s performance prompted Vogel to insert him early into rotation at the wing spot. Johnson first checked in at the 4:11 mark of the first quarter, by far the earliest he had ever entered an NBA game. He played the rest of the quarter and 12 minutes in total. His night wasn’t flashy but for the first time, he looked like could hang. Johnson finished the evening with seven points on 3-of-8 shooting, including 0-for-3 from outside, along with three rebounds.

As Johnson dressed in front of his locker following the Pacers’ 95-80 win, he was visibly upset with the five shots he missed – all on target and a few rimmed out – but he wasn’t letting it get him down. Remember, he had just completed his third game in three cities in three nights.

“I liked those shots,” Johnson said. “I had great looks and guys were finding me. I’m just getting myself comfortable being out there with them. I think the more reps I get, especially in practice with these guys…those shots are going to start falling.”

“I thought he really played a solid game,” Coach Vogel said of Johnson’s night. “He didn’t make some of the open shots he’s been making but that’s to be expected with a guy getting his real first look in real rotation minutes. He played with great toughness, had some good finishes at the rim and played solid defense. I was very happy with what he did.”

High Praise for the D-League

The Pacers’ front office was so high of Johnson, a graduate of UC Santa Barbara, that they traded up in the draft to select him with Sacramento’s pick at 36 for cash considerations. Drafted to a playoff team with veterans ahead of him, playing time would likely be slim to none in his first few years. But Orlando Johnson kept working, as did first-round pick Miles Plumlee.

Part of why Johnson was ready when called was his involvement in the D-League. For the first time this season, NBA teams have little restrictions and can freely move their players to and from their affiliate – making better use of the developmental concept. And for the first time in franchise history, the Pacers utilized the league.

Johnson has made the trip north on I-69 to Fort Wayne three times to get substantial minutes. In this league with an NBA contract, his teammates are envious of his position. Johnson is thankful for the D-League, which provided him an outlet to actually play until his time came with the Pacers.

“It’s been big,” Johnson explained.” It gives me a chance to get a rhythm, get my legs under me and work on things that the coaches are wanting to see me work on. And get that confidence because it’s tough sitting on the bench for a long time and you don’t really getting a chance to play. You’re just waiting for your opportunity and I was fortunate that they did send me to the D-League. I was able to work on things, get myself comfortable and be in a situation where I could be ready to step in and contribute.”

Unfortunately, Sam Young went down with a sprained ankle in practice last week. Fortunately for Johnson, he now has the opportunity he needed. Sometimes, you cannot control circumstances but you can be ready for them.

Just 23-years-old, Johnson has a long way to go. His showing this weekend was a good indication of how he may be able to contribute and he left the fans, coaches and his teammates wanting more.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment. It just felt good to actually go out there and show what I could do.”

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