Orlando Johnson is ready to work to earn his place amongst the NBL's best

The 31 year old feels the best he has in years, and believes he's ready to cement himself as one of the league's best players.

Only a handful of years ago, the signing of Orlando Johnson to the NBL would’ve been propped up as one of unprecedented pedigree.

Drafted 36th in the 2012 NBA Draft, Johnson played over 100 NBA games with the Indiana Pacers, Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and New Orleans Pelicans. With ample experience at the games highest level, Johnson’s signature should be one to excite Australian fans. Yet somehow, due to the hit and miss results of recent big name imports such as Alonzo Gee, Al Harrington and Steve Blake over recent times, a level of skepticism has rooted itself amongst fans when it comes to NBA veterans, particularly those on the wrong side of thirty. As a result, Johnson’s signing was received to more modest fanfare.

Fortunately for Johnson, he has no interest in coasting on past achievements or name value. Having successfully journeyed around the world since 2014 playing both internationally and back in the G League, he has proven his appreciation for the overseas game and an appetite to perform wherever he finds home.

“Each year, every day is a new experience, and when you get a chance to experience a different culture and the lifestyle, it makes you really appreciate where your from and where you’re at,” Johnson said in an interview with The Pick and Roll last week.

“As I’ve gotten a chance to travel and see different countries which has a been huge blessing, I’ve been thankful for that. I just look at every time I get a chance to embark on a new journey, it’s also a personal journey for my growth as well.”

Johnson most recently competed in Russia’s VTB United League — one of Europe’s premier basketball leagues — against some the best scorers in international basketball such as Alexy Shved, Erick McCollum and Mike James, as well as countless players with NBA experience. New Zealand’s import pickup, Colton Iverson, also appeared in the league last season, averaging 7.9 points and 4.4 rebounds in 17.1 minutes a game.

Playing for Avtodor Saratov on an import-laden team that would feature an egalitarian offensive distribution between Ryan Boatright, Markel Starks and Elgin Cook, Johnson would still manage to accrue 14.8 points in 25.0 minutes per game as the teams 4th highest volume offensive option (10.3 shot attempts per game).

While the season’s success bodes well for his translation to the NBL, Johnson believes he’s primed for even stronger play after recuperating to full health.

“[Last year in Russia] was me coming off a year being injured, so I’m back, and I’m ready to show people that Orlando Johnson is the real deal again. I know my body and my health are the best I’ve felt in years, and I finally feel like I’m back to myself.”

If Johnson’s season for Avtodor Saratov was him at sub-optimal health, Johnson appears to be positioned to become one of the league’s most dynamic athletes. Coming off injury, the highflyer still managed to finish plays above the rim with a ferocity relatively indistinguishable from his younger highlights.

Orlando Johnson dunking the ball against Lokomotiv Kuban in February 2020

Unsure of his next professional stop, Johnson expressed interest in the NBL through his agent after the league’s recent successes.

“I found out about the NBL a few years ago, and I really started paying attention to the players that have been coming over here. A few friends came to play and told me how great the league was and the competition, so I was like ‘Oh man, I wanna get over there and go play.’”

The feeling was mutual, with the Brisbane Bullets reaching out in search of a replacement for All-NBL First Teamer Lamar Patterson on the wing.

“[I liked] how open they were about wanting to bring me here and be a part of something. I was really excited to be wanted and to have an opportunity to play and compete at a very high level with a really good team. I just want to come in and help in any way possible with the team to achieve their goal to win.”

Recently finishing up quarantine in Sydney, Johnson wasted no time trying to acclimate himself to the team, watching preseason games from his accomodation in an effort to familiarise himself with the group.

“I’ve been looking at the roster and watching film on them. I’ve been in contact with them on a daily basis and we’ve been talking and I’ve been watching them in practice.”

Johnson is part of a substantial roster overhaul this season, with the team losing most of last year’s key pieces, including Lamar Patterson, Will Magnay, Cameron Gliddon, and Reuben Te Rangi. With such a large portion of their offensive output gone, it will fall on Johnson, as well as fellow import Vic Law, to make up the difference on the offensive end.

While Johnson isn’t a one-man offensive engine like his predecessor Patterson, he can score the ball in a large number of different ways out on the floor. With a strong and explosive physical profile, Johnson loves to attack the rim. He possesses a shifty handle for a wing, and when not finishing above the defence, has shown great body control to absorb contact at the rim.

His off the dribble game also extends to pull-up shooting, where he has shown comfort creating and making dribble jumpers for himself.

He also enjoys creating shots for himself in the mid-post area, using his solid build to overpower smaller wings, and even occasionally displaying great touch on turn-arounds such as below.

Whilst Johnson has the ability to create his own shot, he’s also an unselfish player with plenty of utility playing off the ball. A strong outside shooter (career 36.6% 3 point shooter across five G League seasons, and 38.3% across Basketball Reference documented international seasons including Euroleague and Liga ACB), and effective slasher given his athletic tools and activity, Johnson can play off of others, and has also shown a propensity to make simple but effective extra passes as part of a team offence, here passing up the open three to feed team marksman Alexey Babushkin.

While Johnson’s scoring tools are handy, his defensive acumen will likely be even more necessary. Looking across Brisbane’s roster, it’s hard to identify many players with a positive defensive reputation. It may be a lot to ask given their offensive burden, but it appears Brisbane will be banking on their imports to spearhead their game on the defensive side of the ball, as well.

Fortunately, Johnson has a pedigree as a defensive player. At 6’5 with a 6’11 wingspan, Johnson has the size and length to defend multiple positions on the defensive end, and the strong build to handle bigger opponents, leaving him capable of defending most players through the 2 to 4 positions. He’s a high motor defensive player who is particularly adapt locking down creators on the ball, and will also occasionally make defensive plays as a helper, like here, coming across for the block which kick starts a transition play for Avtodor.

With a range of offensive options including Nathan Sobey, Vic Law, Anthony Drmic and Harry Froling on the roster, look for Johnson to typically fill the role of a secondary offensive option whilst taking the assignments of the league’s marquee wings like Scotty Hopson, Lamar Patterson and Deng Adel down the other end of the floor, though this role may vary on any given night depending on what the team requires.

Johnson’s game is scalable to a variety of roles out on the floor, and he’s ready to come in and provide whatever is asked of him.

“I’m a scorer, a play-maker, and defensively I’ll guard as many positions as I can, I’m very versatile in that area. I just think I’ll bring a lot of energy to the team, to the city and whatever they need me to do, I’m going to try and bring it every night.

“I just want to win. I want to show that I’m one of the best players in this league, and just be a big time player. Show that I still have the capabilities to succeed and win, and being a contributor. For myself, it’s just about coming out every day, getting better with my team, and do what they need from me on a night in, night out basis, and I’m just ready to get out there.”

While he’s all about the team, for Johnson, every year is a personal challenge to prove himself. Coming from exceptionally trying circumstances as a child, Johnson says he learnt to fight for his goals.

“Going through the trials and tribulations that I went through as a young man, as a kid, having a strong support system, my brothers, my family, my grandmother, cousins, aunties, uncles, they were just there and we were all there for each other and helped pick up one another when one was down. I think for me, going forward, you had to be resilient.

“Growing up with 17 people in a house at one point, we had to fight for everything, nothing was handed to us, and I think that’s what makes me appreciate the game that much more, because every day you have to earn it.

“The mentality you had to have when you left that house you knew nothing was going to be given and you had to work for it. I take that with me everywhere I go, from all the business ventures I do and even with just work, making sure I bring it every day. To someone that might be going through a similar situation, just keep bringing it every day.”

Now Johnson is ready to earn his place amongst the NBL’s elite. For the skeptics ready to write off the veteran as an NBA has been, Johnson has a simple message.

“I know I’ve been putting in the work and I’m going to have a real impact, so it’s going to show and I’m looking forward to that. I’ve got a lot to show and prove to a lot of people and I think they’re going to like what they see. My game will speak for itself when it comes to those personal things.

“They’re going to be in for a treat.”