Midtown: Sports

DeCock: After a long and bumpy road, path to NBA is smooth

Going into Thursday night, Darius Johnson-Odom didn’t know if he’d be drafted. Since winning a state 4A title at Wakefield High in 2006, nothing in his basketball career had come easy to him. Why should that change now?

So he went to shoot around at Heritage High with some friends during the first round, got back home about the time the first round was ending, and just listened from the other room.

At 11:45 p.m., the Dallas Mavericks took the Marquette guard 55th overall, then quickly traded his rights to the Los Angeles Lakers for cash.

And for maybe the first time in his basketball career, “DJO” caught a break.

“Yeah, that’s what I would call it,” Johnson-Odom said Friday. “This is a little head start. There’s always room for improvement. I just need to keep working, keep pushing myself. I’m going to be around the best, so I need to push myself to be one of the best.”

Six players from North Carolina and Duke went in the first round, but none were truly local. They were from Indiana and Iowa, Florida and Virginia. It took 55 picks before an actual North Carolina player was drafted.

Johnson-Odom already has taken a long journey to this point. From Wakefield, he went to prep school and then Hutchinson Junior College in Kansas, waiting two years to be declared eligible by the NCAA because of a class he took online. Once he arrived at Marquette, he became a star, earning first-team all-Big East honors as a senior.

And now, he’ll make the long journey to Los Angeles. Typically, it’s better to be a free agent than get taken late in the second round, where contracts aren’t guaranteed and being drafted can prevent a less-heralded player from going somewhere he’s really needed.

Johnson-Odom is a special case. The Lakers haven’t had a first-round pick since 2007, which has left them short of young talent. They saw enough they liked in Johnson-Odom to buy him from the Mavericks, which means he’s going somewhere he’s really wanted.

“To pay cash for me shows the kind of player I am,” Johnson-Odom said. “I’m the type of guy that they want, somebody who can help the organization.”

At 6-2, Johnson-Odom is an NBA conundrum, not quite big enough to play shooting guard, without much experience at point guard. But the Lakers like his athleticism and shooting ability and think he can slot into their rotation as an off-the-bench defender and spot-up shooter.

Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said the Lakers had Johnson-Odom rated at the top of the second round and were thrilled to get him when they did, although he said whether Johnson-Odom makes the team will depend on how he performs over the summer and in training camp.

“He plays really, really hard,” Kupchak said “He’s ridiculously athletic, powerful, aggressive, competitive. He’s fun to watch. I think he’ll be a really, really good player leading into training camp.”

Johnson-Odom has fought the odds before. By the standards of his career, this may be his most favorable landing spot yet.