Indiana Pacers guard Orlando Johnson's request to be sent to the Mad Ants shows how the stigma of being assigned to the NBA Development League is fading away.
Johnson, a second-year player with the Pacers, went to assistant coach Dan Burke this week and asked if he could spend a week playing with the Mad Ants. The key word: Playing.
“(Some players) feel like they're being demoted, but I don't feel that way at all,” Johnson said. “These are quality basketball players you're playing against every day. You're just trying to get better at your craft and so are they. “
Johnson, who played briefly with the Mad Ants as a rookie last season, joined the Ants in practice Friday and will be in uniform for their game against Sioux Falls at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Coliseum. After the Ants (16-12) host Sioux Falls (17-10), they'll travel to play at Canton (18-11) on Sunday.
Johnson averaged 23.5 points per game in four Mad Ants games last season. He'll be the second Pacers player assigned this year. Solomon Hill played two games in late December and early January. Mad Ants coach Conner Henry said Hill also initiated the assignment.
The chance for significant game action is the primary draw of a D-League assignment.
“Once I left here last year was when I actually started playing for the Pacers,” Johnson said, “So it gave me all the confidence in the world that I could go out and handle my business and do my thing on the NBA level.”
There's even less playing time available with this year's Pacers. Johnson has appeared in 36 games, averaging about nine minutes per game.
“I'm behind some all-stars, so it's tough,” Johnson said. “But you learn so much every day. You want to incorporate it into your game, so that's what I'm trying to do down here.”
Johnson joins Peyton Siva and Tony Mitchell from the Detroit Pistons as current NBA-assigned players with the Mad Ants. The influx of NBA players forces Henry to change his approach in distributing playing time minutes.
“That's the biggest challenge,” Henry said. “All of a sudden you have three NBA guys and we have a logjam at the wing position.”
Henry has a number of wing players in Trey McKinney-Jones, the other Tony Mitchell, Sadiel Rojas and Bennie Lewis.
“Then you throw Ron (Howard) in that group and he can play wing,” Henry said. “That's my challenge. How I manage that, we'll see. I try to tell guys whatever minutes they get, play as hard as possible and as a team, as best they can.”
Johnson played with a number of the current Mad Ants last season and he says that familiarity should be a benefit.
“It helps that they are going to be pushing me, and I'm going to be trying to push them, to just get better,” Johnson said. “That's all I care about, working at my craft and becoming the best I can be.”
While there's always a trick in blending the NBA players with the core Mad Ants team, Johnson feels he can come in and fit comfortably with the roster. He played with Howard, Mitchell, Rojas and Chris Porter last season with the Ants. He said he's familiar with others from summer-league ball in Las Vegas.
“They definitely have some players down here,” Johnson said. “I'm looking forward to getting out there, running and winning some games.”