By Tom Ballato
Orlando Johnson was a two sport athlete at Palma High School in California. He was a star wide receiver in football and a talented scoring forward in basketball. His senior year of high school, Johnson decided to focus on just basketball. A decision that payed dividends for him.
Loyola Marymount and UC Santa Barbara
He began his collegiate career at Loyola Marymount University. He set a freshman scoring record and tied the freshman record for rebounds at LMU. Johnson averaged 12.4 points and 4.9 rebounds per game in 2007-08 for Loyola Marymount. After his freshman year, Johnson transferred to UC Santa Barbara (UCSB).
Johnson sat out a year required by the NCAA and when he was eligible, immediately made an impact for UC Santa Barbara. In his three years with the program, Johnson set the schools scoring record with 1,825 points. He was named Big West Player of the Year in 2010 as a sophomore, had First Team All-Big West honors for three straight years, and was the Big West Tournament MVP in 2010 and 2011.
Following Johnson’s junior year, he was chosen to represent Team USA in the 2011 World University Games in China. While a member of the team, he averaged 7.2 points per game. Team USA ultimately finished 5th at the World University Games. He had a big senior season at UCSB where he led his team in scoring, assists, and steals. He was the focal point of their offense and improved his three point shooting percentage from pervious years.
NBA and Professional Basketball
Johnson went into the NBA Draft known for his scoring instincts. He was also able to guard multiple positions with his 6-11 wingspan. The Sacramento Kings selected him in the 2nd round with the 36th overall pick, but traded to the Indiana Pacers on draft night.
In his rookie season, he was part of a Pacer team that featured Paul George, George Hill, and David West. They made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals that year and lost to the Miami Heat in seven games. He played in 51 games and had 12 playoff appearances as a rookie. Johnson averaged 3.98 points and 2.2 rebounds a game.
When asked how valuable his experience was around those players and also getting playoff experience in his rookie season, Johnson responded, “It was really valuable. Just going into work everyday knowing I had the veterans to show me what it took to be a pro. I had a great group of guys that took me under their wing. They just showed me what it took to be a professional at that level and what it took to keep getting better.”
Orlando would spend parts of two seasons with the Pacers and Fort Wayne Mad Ants (Pacers D-League affiliate). He was waived by Indiana and a few weeks later signed a 10-day contract with the Sacramento Kings, the team that drafted him. The Kings signed Johnson to a second 10-day contract, but at the conclusion of that contract, did not sign him for the rest of the season. He appeared in 7 games for the Kings.
In 2014, Johnson signed to a 1 year deal with a team in Spain. After a few games, Johnson was waived and returned to the states to play for the Austin Spurs in the D-League. When his season was over with the Austin Spurs, he signed with Barangay Ginebra in the Philippines. In his 12 games with Barangay Ginebra, Johnson averaged 33.7 points and 11.3 rebounds per game. The Philippines gave him a platform to showcase his scoring abilities and he delivered.
He returned home once again and in the fall of 2015, he signed to play with the Austin Spurs again. He became a NBA D-League All-Star which landed him a 10-day contract with the Phoenix Suns in early 2016. The Suns gave Johnson playing time and in his two games with the team, he averaged 23.7 minutes, 8 points, and 4.5 rebounds per game, but they didn’t renew his contract. A few weeks later, the New Orleans Pelicans signed Johnson to a 10-day contract through the NBA hardship exemption due to numerous injuries. In 5 games, including his first NBA start, Johnson averaged 2 points per game. He returned to Austin at the conclusion of this 10-day contract.
Johnson described being on a 10-day contract by saying, “So you go there trying to make something happen. You try to make a splash without disrupting the chemistry of the team. I felt like a lot of the times when I was on 10 days, you are pressing so much because you want to do well and stay, but that right there can get you. It could be a good or bad thing. You got to go out there and play your game to the best of your ability, but don’t try to force it.”
Orlando made it back to the NBA after almost two years through hard-work playing overseas and in the NBA D-League. Although his return was short-lived, he did gain valuable experience. Johnson discussed making it back to the NBA and said, “Really it was just showing them I wasn’t done. I think a lot of people try to write me off. For me it was more so getting back and enjoying the game. Making it back was special for me in terms of just believing I could actually do it. Finding a way and improving my game each summer so you have that chance. So that was pretty cool to make it back.”
In the summer of 2016, Orlando had a brief stint in China, where once again he got to showcase his game and put on a scoring display. He had a training camp invite with the Milwaukee Bucks, but got waived after the pre-season. Johnson went to Russia for three months to play for UNICS Kazan and after that, returned to the Austin Spurs once again.
Since returning to Austin for a third stint with the team, Johnson has played in Lebanon, Bosnia, and Taiwan. He was named 2019 Player of the Year in Taiwan’s Super Basketball League and averaged 21.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game. He was the third best scorer in the league.
Johnson talked about some of his favorite stops he has made in his professional career. He expressed, “My favorite place would have to be between the Philippines and Russia. I love the Philippines, love the atmosphere and how much their fans just love basketball. Just how much you are embraced out there. You are an icon to them and once you play in the PBA and for the Philippines, they just love you. That is something I’ll always cherish. Hopefully one day I’ll return there. If I don’t play, just to see some of their fans. Russia was also a great experience as well, just in terms of the talent level. It felt like the closest to me to the NBA. The D-League also helped bring the love of the game back to me. I had some really great teammates that pushed me everyday.”
This summer Johnson played for the first time in The Basketball Tournament for Eberlein Drive. He was a late addition of the team’s roster and utilized off the bench. When asked about the experience in the tournament, Johnson replied, “It was pretty good. It was nice to reunite with Donald Sloan. It was my first time playing with Jerome Randle. I have always been a fan of his game since our college days competing against him. Playing with Kenny (Kadji), Pat (Miller), and Osiris (Eldridge), I heard a lot about those guys and getting up and down the floor with them, it was fun. It was really a great experience just to get back out there and play in the United States. I am looking forward to getting back out there next year.”
Orlando has a basketball academy which he started around his second year in the NBA. It is called the Orlando Johnson Basketball Academy. “My brother was trying to find a way how we can bridge the gap between the community, myself, and the basketball programs around here.” There wasn’t many programs in Salinas, California. The academy is an AAU program as well and it has been growing constantly. Johnson said, “We have four boys teams and a girls team and we just want to keep building. I want these kids to keep getting better and just want them to have an opportunity to continue playing or just find something they are passionate about.”
Heading Back to Russia
Johnson is headed back to play in the top division in Russia for Avtodor Saratov. He had offers to play elsewhere in Italy, the Philippines, and France, but chose Russia. Johnson wants to make this his best year yet and has been putting in work to shoot the ball at a high percentage, improve his pick and roll game, and improve his decision making.
Now 30, Johnson was asked about a possible comeback to the NBA. He responded, “That could be possible. I am looking forward to this year in Russia. Establishing myself getting back to that level. A lot of people have been wondering how my health has been the past few years. I am ready to show people I’m back and I’m healthy. This is a stepping stone to get back to that point of where I want to be.”