NCAA Under the Radar: Orlando Johnson
Orlando Johnson has solidified himself as one of the best scorers in college basketball and he’ll likely compete for the nation’s scoring title this season. Last year, he was the fifteenth-best scorer in the country after averaging 21.1 points, and many of the players who finished above him are now on NBA rosters.
Now, as Johnson enters his senior season at UC Santa Barbara, he’s hoping to take his game to the next level and carve his own path to the NBA. Johnson has an impressive résumé that includes two Big West Tournament Most Valuable Player awards and two Big West scoring titles. His list of accomplishments has made him very popular in NBA circles.
“I bring great leadership and I’m a savvy competitor, someone who is determined to get the job done,” Johnson said when asked to describe his game. “People see what I can do as a scorer, but I think I’m also a good rebounder for my size and I’m becoming more of a lockdown defender. My defense has gotten better each year I’ve been playing. I know I’m going to continue improving because I’m going to keep working hard. I want to be the best player I can be.”
This offseason, Johnson took the necessary to steps to continue his development. He represented the United States in the World University Games in China and participated in skills academies hosted by LeBron James and Kevin Durant. This allowed Johnson to expand his game and test himself against the best players in the country.
“The competition this offseason was great,” Johnson said. “I was able to get after it with some guys who are highly touted, guys who are talked about more than me. It was a great situation for me. We’re all trying to achieve the same thing: We all dream about playing in the NBA. I feel like I’m getting closer and closer each day and I want to make this dream a reality. I know I have to work harder than the guys at Vanderbilt, North Carolina and Duke. They have an advantage because they get more attention than someone from Santa Barbara or any of these mid-major schools. I just have to go harder than them and work as hard as I can so that I have the chance to prove people wrong.”
Before Johnson emerged as one of the most talented players in the country, he had to overcome many obstacles. Throughout his childhood, he had to endure more deaths than many people encounter in a lifetime.
As an infant, his mother passed away. When he was six years old, he was living with ten relatives when his house caught on fire, killing four of his family members. Johnson moved in with his grandmother after the tragic incident. She raised him for five years, but then passed away when he was 11. That’s when his two older brothers, Robbie Johnson and Jamell Damon, dropped everything to care for Orlando. They had high expectations for him and helped mold him into the man he is today.
“It made me grow up faster,” Johnson said. “I had my brothers raising me and they really didn’t give me any leeway. They let me know I had to step up and become a man faster than others. I didn’t have a choice. I had my younger nephews looking up to me and I was always one of the guys in school that people looked up to. I couldn’t have any slippage anywhere, on the court or off the court. Being raised by my grandmother for 11 years and then by my brothers really helped me grow into a man. They’re the people that really deserve the credit when it comes to shaping who I am.”
Johnson kept his grades up and fell in love with sports. His brothers introduced him to basketball and it wasn’t long before he was dedicating all of his time to the game.
“Basketball kept me off the streets,” Johnson said. “I loved playing sports and I was always watching my brothers. I really liked basketball and football. My brothers showed me some stuff and taught me that I had to work hard in order to be really good. When they were raising me, I would just go out in the backyard and work out or work on my game. One day, I decided that I just wanted to focus on basketball. I was really serious about it and ever since then I’ve been going hard.”
He has had success during his first three years in college, but believes this will be his best season yet. Not only does he expect to improve individually, he has high expectations for his team. During UCSB’s media day, Johnson told reporters: “We’ve seen how these other mid-majors have made it to the Final Four. I don’t know why that can’t be us.”
He stands by his words and believes the sky is the limit for the Gauchos this season.
“I think we have a good nucleus and a great one-two punch with myself and James Nunnally,” Johnson said. “We’re definitely going to carry a lot of scoring load, but we’re going to be counted on to be great defenders for our team as well. We lost some great seniors last year as well as Will Brew, who was going to be a senior, so it puts a lot on our shoulders. I know we’re more than ready for that to happen though with our leadership skills. It also helps having a big man like Jaime Serna. We have a great freshman class too. We’re going to be pretty good. We just have to take our games to the next level and if that happens, we’ll be alright.”
After the season, Johnson will enter his name in the NBA Draft. Last summer, he tested the waters and worked out for a number of NBA teams before deciding to withdraw from the pool. After getting a feel for the process, he believes he’ll be ready to stand out next year and thrive in that environment.
“I think I’m very good in one-on-one situations because I’m tough to guard. I have a different variety of moves I can use. I’m comfortable facing up or having my back to the basket. I watch a lot of film of myself and of NBA players so that I can study their moves and make them mine. I feel like I’m knocking on the door and I just need to be let in.”
As one of the most prolific scorers in the nation, Johnson rarely gets overlooked. Opposing teams often send multiple defenders at him and it’s difficult for him to fly under the radar. He’s not used to the underdog role, but he’s looking forward to embracing it during the pre-draft progress.
“I’m kind of the sleeper right now,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I like it.”