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Friday, June 29, 2012

Orlando Johnson, Greatest UCSB Baller Ever (6.29.12)

Let me preface this post by stating the truth; I rarely watch college basketball. I do soak up as much March Madness as possible, but any NCAA basketball played before March usually rings irrelevant in my life.

There are many reasons why I do not follow collegiate basketball — slow play, lack of creativity, lack of elite talent — but the biggest reason stems from my disinclination to follow fluctuating athletic programs. The players come and go, and I just don't have the time to invest in watching them. Lacking a consistent source of brilliance, I struggle to build a relationship with a program that will have its star player leave for the NBA after his freshman season. Instead, I prefer to follow NBA talent. Of course, some people are loyal to programs due to alumni status, locale, or just long standing fandom, but I have never truly attached myself to the college game, or a college program. 

Although I have chosen to avoid college basketball, there is one player that I have had the fortune to follow a bit more closely, Orlando Johnson — the greatest Gaucho baller since Brian Shaw. As a recent UCSB alumni, my collegiate timeline coincided with the 36th pick of the 2012 NBA Draft.

In fact, I even faced off against Johnson during an intramural basketball game in the Thunderdome. The moment was quite memorable. I have a penchant for being fiery on the court, and that night was no different. After engaging in smack talk with my opponent, he called upon the services of the 6'5" shooting guard. My opponent subbed out, and Johnson stepped in. I immediately checked Johnson and got up in his chest at the top of the key. Johnson backed me up with a jab from the triple threat stance, and then he took a dribble right and fired up a jumper from the elbow. Clank. Obviously, he missed a makable shot, but with that miss, I can officially lay claim to stopping a future NBA player from scoring on me.

As I came back down the court, I thought about pulling up for a three in Johnson's face. Standing just over 5'10", that plan quickly changed. As I neared the wing, I went into my shooting motion, but Johnson leapt forward in an attempt to spike my shot into the next galaxy (and humiliate me). I quickly abandoned the shot and swung the ball to the top. I actually wanted the give and go since Johnson was so out of position, but my teammate (and roommate who played ball with me all the time and should have made the play — Matt Bagunu), missed the connection. Johnson stayed on the court for a few more possessions before subbing out and watching me burn his scrub of a friend. 

Due to my lack of familiarity with the college game, I will not compare Johnson to other members of the 2012 draft class. However, I can confidently state that Johnson has the skills to be a superb pro baller. Johnson can flat out score. UCSB may be a mid-major, but I believe that Johnson can put the ball in the hoop against NBA talent. He possesses a sweet deep stroke, and he has a lethal pull up jumper from the elbow and mid-wing. Johnson can score effectively in isolation sets, post-ups, catch and shoot opportunities, and off the dribble. Johnson shot over 41% from deep, and he averaged 20.27 points per game throughout his three seasons at UCSB.

I've witnessed Johnson in assassin mode, and he fits the bill well. The final game I saw him play live was the second to last game of the 2011 regular season against Cal State Northridge. Johnson dropped 30 that night on 57% shooting. He nailed all five of his three pointers, and he made 9-11 from the free throw line. He repeatedly attacked the rim to set up his sweet jumper. Simply put, he looked like a guy who would translate well to the NBA. As I left that game with my housemate, we discussed Johnson's likely future in the NBA. We both agreed that Johnson (a fourth-year junior at that time) had an NBA game.

Johnson flirted with the NBA following his junior season, even going so far as to declare for the 2011 NBA Draft, but he decided to come back for his senior year. I don't blame him — Santa Barbara is a great school. I graduated and missed his senior season, but it seems like another year of excellent play helped Johnson elevate his draft stock (including his performance as a part of Team USA at the 2011 World University Games in Shenzhen, China). He also got to finish up his school work and earn a B.A. degree in Sociology.

Clearly, Johnson can score, but he is also a strong leader.

After transferring from Loyola Marymount following a surprise coaching change, Johnson had to wait a full season before he could grace Santa Barbara with his skill. In his first season of eligibility ('09-10), Johnson led the Gauchos to a 20-10 record, including a 12-4 mark in conference play. He continued his strong play in the Big West Tournament, and he led the Gauchos to a championship with a victory over Long Beach State — Johnson scored a game high 20 points. For his outstanding play, he was named the Big West Tournament MVP, and UCSB garnered an automatic NCAA Tournament bid. The bid was UCSB's first since 2002. After the season, Johnson was named the Big West Player of the Year. He made the All-Big West First Team, and he was listed as an AP Honorable Mention All-American. Johnson finished the season averaging 18.0 points on 48.1% shooting, along with 5.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. Johnson's initial impact on the UCSB program was phenomenal. He instantly gave the Gauchos a legitimate go-to scorer that could lead the team in the biggest of moments.

Johnson upped his numbers in his junior season, but team success did not follow. The Gauchos finished the season with an 18-14 record, including an 8-8 mark in conference play. Due to their mediocre regular season record, the Gauchos entered the Big West Tournament as a five seed. Despite the low seed, the Gauchos knocked off Long Beach State for the second straight year in the championship game. Johnson led the way with a game high 23 points. UCSB became the lowest seeded Big West Tournament champion since San Jose State defeated Utah State in 1996. The victory netted the Gauchos a consecutive berth to the NCAA Tournament. Johnson finished the season averaging 21.1 points on 47.5% shooting, along with 6.2 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. Johnson was once again named to the All-Big West First Team.

Johnson's senior season featured more of the same. He finished the season averaging 19.7 points on 45.1% shooting, along with 5.8 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. He also led the team to a bounce back regular season record of 20-11, including a strong 12-4 mark in conference play. Once again, UCSB faced off against Long Beach State in the championship game. However, this time, the Gauchos couldn't overcome tournament MVP Casper Ware and his 33 points. Without a Big West championship, the Gauchos failed to garner a NCAA Tournament bid, but they were granted an entry to the College Insider Tournament.

Overall, Johnson finished his collegiate career as the first player in Big West history to win the league's scoring title three straight seasons. He also became just the second player in UCSB history to earn All-Big West First Team honors for three seasons. He holds all three major scoring records at UCSB, with 1,825 career points, 674 points in a season, and 39 points in a game. He led the Gauchos to consecutive Big West Tournament championships in '10 and '11, and each time he was named the tournament MVP. Even more impressive, he led the Gauchos to consecutive NCAA Tournament berths — a feat the school had never accomplished before. Although Ohio St. and Florida each defeated UCSB handily in the NCAA Tournament, Johnson scored over 20 points in both games. His stellar play at UCSB led him to become the first UCSB player to be selected in the NBA Draft since Brian Shaw in 1988.

Johnson's biggest challenge at the next level will be defending NBA talent. Since UCSB is a mid-major, Johnson did not always compete against topflight competition. Now he will have to defend some of the most dangerous scoring weapons in basketball. With a stocky build, Johnson may need to work on his foot speed. Aware of that issue, Johnson dropped his weight from 235 to 220 pounds heading into the draft. As he works on his speed, Johnson can always rely on his great length. Johnson boasts a 7-foot wingspan and a 39" vertical leap (second best in the NBA combine). Johnson has a capable frame to play NBA caliber defense, and I believe that he has the willpower to do everything it takes to play strong defense.

Whatever challenge lies ahead, it will never compare to the challenges of his past. Johnson's mother was murdered when he was an infant. Johnson was fortunate to move in with his grandmother and 10 relatives, but when Johnson was six years old, the house was lost in a fire, and tragically, four of his family members were killed. At the age of 11, Johnson's grandmother, and caretaker, died. Johnson was then raised by his older brothers, Robbie Johnson and Jamell Damon Sr. As former ball players, Robbie (football at St. Mary's) and Jamell (basketball at Weber St.), turned Orlando's rough upbringing into a driving force of motivation.

Overall, Johnson has the foundation to be a solid NBA player. Drafted by the Sacramento Kings with the 36th pick, Johnson was informed by the Indiana Pacers a couple minutes before the pick that they would be trading for him. Johnson was immediately traded to the Pacers after he was drafted, and now he will sit behind second year stud, Paul George, on the depth chart. With just one guy ahead of him to fill in the shooting guard position, Johnson may be able to make an immediate impact for the Pacers. He may even learn some things from a fellow Gaucho, Brian Shaw, who is employed by the Pacers as an assistant coach.

From one Gaucho to another, good luck O.J., you are the first baller that I have ever consistently followed from college play to the pro level. However your career turns out, I can always say I saw the greatest baller in UCSB history.

Ole´, Ole´, Ole´, Ole´! Gauchos, Guachos!

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