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My Sophomore Crush: Orlando Johnson

With the 2013-14 NBA season on the horizon, we’re taking this week to look at the players we love who are headed into their second year in the league. For most, if not all, of these players, expectations are either sky high or at rock bottom. And at the end of the year, what we know about them will likely be far removed from what we thought headed into this season.

You’re probably not familiar with Orlando Johnson.

There’s really no reason to be. He was a second round pick by the Indiana Pacers and played just 619, mostly unremarkable minutes, as a rookie. A slightly undersized shooting guard from UC Santa Barbara with average athleticism and plenty of defensive deficiencies, there’s absolutely nothing eye-popping about him. But in those scant minutes he showed at least two distinct NBA skills – he made good things happen when he ran the pick-and-roll and he made outside shots (38.3% on three-pointers for the season).

Both of those things were in desperately short supply on the Pacers’ bench last season and whenever the opportunity was presented, Johnson generally provided. Now it’s more than a little possible that simply offering a passable alternative to Gerald Green and D.J. Augustin made him seem far better than he actually was. I was starved for offensive stability last season and willing to fall in love with anyone who even hinted at the ability to provide it. But I’m almost certain there’s something there – maybe even something more than the potential to regularly make positive basketball plays. As Sam Young and Augustin melted in the playoff heat of the Heat I was begging for Johnson to get a chance to try and contribute.

But as promising as his non-distinct rookie campaign seemed to me, circumstances may slash his chances at an NBA career. Danny Granger is back and healthy. Chris Copeland was signed and (gulp) should see some wing minutes off the bench in certain match ups. C.J. Watson has replaced Augustin and has the size and defensive chops to chew up some off-guard minutes alongside George Hill. Rookie Solomon Hill looks ready to contribute immediately as a defensive stop-gap. There simply may not be enough minutes to go around and a steady offensive hand just isn’t as important for this bench anymore. As a group they are now (theoretically) a well-spring of versatility for the purpose of exploiting match ups. In that context Johnson’s usefulness shrinks considerably.

The truth is that keeping Johnson at the end of the bench, instead of in the rotation, would probably a good thing for the Pacers. It would be a sign of continuing physical health and that the second-unit offensive has been revitalized by offseason upgrades. But it also means that Johnson will miss out on a crucial year of development, competing against actual NBA players. It deprives him of the chance to fill a defined role, contributing his strengths and working on minimizing his weaknesses. It may doom him to a near-term future of fighting for contracts on summer league squads and training camp invites.

The conventional wisdom has always been that talented players drafted at the ends of rounds and ending up with good teams is generally a good recipe for player development. They find themselves with stable organizations, good role models and generally high quality coaches and players to help them build their games. But the truth is, it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes those players find themselves squeezed out of rotations, even long ones. Short on minutes and opportunities, made redundant and useless by the exact factors that are supposed to cut and polish the different facets of their game. I’m honestly not sure if Orlando Johnson wouldn’t have been better off spending two years with the Bobcats, handed shots, minutes and offensive responsibility. The environment is less attractive for sure, but at least he would have been allowed to fully inhabit it.

Ultimately, I believe in the NBA’s fundamental application of justice. Those players who deserve to play will, at some point, somewhere, play. Doom and gloom does not become me, or Orlando Johnson, and there is plenty of basketball ahead of him. I’m intrigued by his possibilities as a player and I hope that the path he’s been placed on allows him, and us fans, to fully experience and appreciate the depth of those possibilities.

Ian Levy

Ian Levy (@HickoryHigh) writes about basketball from the wilds of Southern Vermont. In addition to his work for Hardwood Paroxysm, he is the man behind the curtain at Hickory-High and a contributor to Indy Cornrows, The Two Man Game and HoopChalk.