Orlando's Warming Up, Has Sunny Forecast

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by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

February 23, 2013

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You saw this coming, right? The second-round draft pick who had missed all four of his three-point shots in the pre-season and hit just two of his first 10 in the regular season between excursions to Fort Wayne to play Development League … you knew he was going to be doing this, right?

Just like you knew those meteors were going to strike Russia last week.

Orlando Johnson has hit 16 of his previous 23 three-point shots for the Pacers, which rounds up to 70 percent and qualifies as a meteoric rise if ever there was one. He hit all three in Friday's 114-82 demolition of Detroit at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and hit both of his two-points shots as well to finish with a career-high 14 points. He also finished with three rebounds, three assists and no turnovers in the sort of complete performance that lately has covered some blemishes on the bench – but also raises a potential dilemma for coach Frank Vogel.

“He's blowing us all away,” Vogel said. “We're going to start sending all our guys to the D League to start the season.”

Johnson probably will finish the season as the Fort Wayne Mad Ants' leading scorer, technically, at 23.5 points per game. Even there, however, he didn't show hints of the marksmanship that was to come. He hit 30 percent of his three-pointers, and 43 percent of his field goals in his four games. Given his recent play, he surely can declare himself retired from his D League career.

And he can begin thinking of a lasting NBA career. Not that he's going to continue shooting at this pace, but his season percentage (.545) would lead the league if he had enough attempts. Atlanta's Kyle Korver leads at .466.

If Johnson remains a viable outside threat, the puzzling struggles of Gerald Green, who's hit 28 percent of his three-point shots, is hardly noticeable, not to mention all the talk about acquiring a shooter such as Orlando's J.J. Redick. The Pacers had meaningful talks with the Magic about acquiring Redick – who is shooting 39 percent, 35th in the NBA – before Thursday's trade deadline, but weren't willing to give up a first-round draft pick. Redick, who wound up in Milwaukee, would only have been a rental for the Pacers, because they won't have the financial resources to re-sign him this summer, when keeping David West will be the priority.

Besides, who needs Redick's 39 percent when you already have Johnson's 55 percent? Particularly when Johnson has earned so much admiration within the locker room.

“I'm surprised that it's happened this early,” Vogel said of Johnson's three-point shooting. “I'm always surprised when rookies come in and adjust to the three-point line. It usually takes time. I felt like he'd become a good three-point shooter … I didn't see it coming this fast.”

By all accounts, Johnson made himself a shooter with hard work. He arrives early for practice and stays late. He comes in on his own, or with teammates, at off hours. He had adjusted his mechanics slightly to enable him to get his shot up over taller NBA players, and ingrained them. He was a 40 percent three-point shooter over his final three seasons in college, but rarely does a player's percentage improve as an NBA rookie – especially after starting 2-of-10.

“He's solid, man,” David West said. “He's a four-year college guy (actually five years, including the season he sat out after transferring from Loyola Marymount to Cal-Santa Barbara), so he's prepared to play right away. He's humble, no ego and he works hard every day. He comes to practice and takes his lumps, but he's improving.”

Johnson admits there were times early in the season when he wondered if he could make it in the NBA. Former Pacers president Larry Bird awarded him the ultimate show of faith with a two-year guaranteed contract, rare for a second-round draft pick, but that didn't assure him of a place on the roster. His slow start made it obvious he needed time in the D League, and he took advantage. It was better than sitting and watching the Pacers, which he's done in 35 of their 55 games, sometimes in street clothes.

“You're not playing, you're the last man on the bench, you're not dressing out some games, and it hurts, because you feel you've worked so hard to get to this level and you still can't prove to them that you're ready,” Johnson said. “I think my work ethic and being in the gym with the coaches, watching film … that's a credit to them because they've put time in to me and I want to make sure I give myself a chance.”

So, what happens to his chance when Danny Granger returns, which Vogel said could happen Saturday in Detroit? Does that bump Johnson out of the playing rotation and back to spectator status? Granger won't absorb a heavy load of minutes when he does return, but eventually figures to become a starter. That will demote Lance Stephenson to the bench, which theoretically demotes Johnson further down the row to the remote position of Non. 3 shooting guard.

“If (Granger) wants to take a little more time off, I'm not mad at him,” Johnson joked after Friday's game.

More seriously, he's prepared for whatever. He began the season not expecting to play at all in the significant moments of games, and assumed his rookie trip through the NBA would be more like an internship that allowed him to observe how the pros do it – at least when he wasn't busy playing for the Mad Ants. Now he's looking like a legit NBA player, ready and more than able when called upon. Regardless of how often he's called upon, it's all a bonus for him.

“We're trying to win a championship this year,” he said. “It's not about me playing or not. I want to play, I think I can and should play, but if (Vogel) feels like Danny's the best option, that's what we're going to roll with. If we can win a championship, then I have no complaints at all.”

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