FORT WAYNE – For Orlando Johnson, being a guard with the Indiana Pacers has been mostly a wonderful experience. They made it to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals last year – losing to eventual champion Miami – and they have the top winning percentage in the NBA this season.
But it’s not always easy sitting toward the end of the bench, averaging only 9.4 minutes per game.
So he has embraced being sent down to the D-League to play again for the Mad Ants, a move that coincided with the Pacers’ signing of Andrew Bynum but could end with a recall as soon as Thursday.
It feels good to get back out there and play (with the Mad Ants), Johnson said, and to get my wind back, get some reps.
The Mad Ants have gone 1-1 with Johnson in the lineup this season, and he’s averaged 9 points and 7.5 rebounds, making only 8 of 33 shots.
The Mad Ants (17-13) play host tonight to Bakersfield (12-19) at Memorial Coliseum. On Thursday, they play host to Sioux Falls (18-11).
The Mad Ants have two other players down from the NBA – Peyton Siva and Tony Mitchell of the Detroit Pistons – and they likely have only two more games with Fort Wayne.
In the meantime, coach Conner Henry’s job is difficult; he has to manage the minutes of the NBA players and stars like all-star Ron Howard, D-League Rookie of the Year Tony R. Mitchell and Sadiel Rojas.
We’ve got 13 players, and it’s a lot of minutes to manage, a lot of people to manage, said Henry, whose team lost 96-82 at Canton on Sunday.
Last season, Johnson played four games as a rookie with the Mad Ants and averaged 23.5 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists.
He believes he’s a much different player now – in 87 NBA games, he’s averaged 3.4 points and 1.8 rebounds – but he’s still hungry for the work he can get in the D-League.
Yeah, I am embracing it, said Johnson, 24. I’m glad to be back down here with some hungry guys who are trying to get better every day, who are going to push me every day, and I’m just trying to get better and work on the things I need to improve on. I just want to get better.
Johnson, who played in college with Loyola Marymount and then UC Santa Barbara, was the 36th pick in the 2012 NBA draft but was traded by Sacramento to Indiana for cash.
That put him on a better team but, ultimately, cost him playing time.
So he knows time in the D-League helps keep him fresh.
I see things now differently (than I did last year), he said.
Just getting a chance to get the reps again, and to be playing here, to get my confidence back, it’s good.