The first thing you notice when you look at Dakari Johnson is that he is big. When he enters a room, everyone knows it. That is what happens when a man towering a foot over anyone else comes through the door. At just a hair under seven feet tall and weighing 265 pounds, Johnson's dimensions dwarf mere mortals as illustrated in his recent sit down interview with Thunder writer Nick Gallo. No offense to Gallo, but even with both men seated and Dakari leaning down, images of Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey instantly spring to mind....
....but Johnson doesn't aspire to walk among average sized men, he wants to compete in a league where 7 footers can easily get lost in the crowd.
There is little doubt that is was very exciting when Johnson heard his name called on draft night. However, being selected in the second round does not come with any guarantees. Unlike Cameron Payne, the Thunder's first round pick and his mandatory two-year rookie offer, Johnson still has a lot of work to do to secure his place at a very crowded table. Dakari told Nick Gallo he is willing to be a sponge and learn how to make that happen.
Johnson's lack of athleticism is a concern, however, he has more than just a 7'2" wingspan and huge 9'4" standing reach working for him. First of all, he is not afraid of a challenge. Second, he has developed a team first mentality and most importantly, Dakari is smart. When Kevin Boyle, Johnson's reowned coach at St. Patrick High School in Elizabeth, NJ took over the reins at Montverde Acadamy in Florida, Johnson followed. After sitting out the mandatory year and working on his conditioning, Dakari's academic standing allowed him the opportunity to make the rare decision of declaring himself a senior.
The decision to forego an extra season at Montverde makes sense on at least two fronts. After getting in shape and dominating high school players then finishing his senior season averaging 17 points, 11 rebounds, and 4.3 blocks per game it was obvious that Johnson was ready to go to the next level.
Plus, a 19 year old NBA prospect is more appealing than a 20 year old prospect.
Coming out of High School, ESPN.com rated Johnson as the #1 center prospect (12th overall) and he was highly recruited. He considered offers from Ohio State, Syracuse, Kansas, Georgetown, and Coach Billy Donovan's Florida Gators before opting for Kentucky and John Calipari's track record of preparing players for the NBA. Coach Boyle at Montverde spoke about Johnson's physical transformation and choices he made at Montverde and the college he chose to attend:
"He has transformed himself so much since he was a soft, chunky big man at St. Patrick. He had great understanding of the game, but no endurance, he might have been 40 or 50 pounds too heavy."
"That he reclassified made sense because physically he was overpowering high school kids and Kentucky was the right place because he’d never been pushed to get minutes and there he was,"
Boyle knew that Dakari would have to dig deeper than ever before if he was going to succeed at Kentucky. He knew Johnson was willing to work when he shed the weight, but he also knew his big man had a tendency to rely on his size alone to get him minutes and that needed to change. A lesson Dakari learned very well in Lexington:
"(I’m) just working harder, just getting the concept that if I don’t work hard, I’m not going to play. If I’m not going to play hard out there and not listen to what Coach is saying, I’m not going to play."
Johnson said the concept of "work hard or don't play" was new to him:
"In high school, I would just, like, even if I don’t produce or work hard, I would just play anyways. Here, if you don’t work hard you’re not going to play."
Dakari spent 2 seasons in Lexington. As a freshman, he began his career backing up current Sacramento first round choice Willie Cauley-Stein. but when Stein went down to injury in February, 2014, Johnson took over the starting spot and the concept of "work hard or don't play" helped him keep it. Asked to comment about Johnson's improved play in the 2014 NCAA tourney Calipari had this to say about Dakari:
"he changed his body, he became . . . . pretty fast. His skill changed."
After starting in the National Championship game as a freshman, Johnson found himself coming off the bench again the next season when the future NBA #1 draft choice Karl-Anthony Towns came to town. Losing his spot to an in-coming freshman must have been a bitter pill for Johnson to swallow, but Dakari chose not to sulk about the demotion and continued working on his game and helping his team win.
For example, he showed marked improvement at the free throw line raising his percentage from an abysmal 44.7 to a respectable 62.5 percent. His Per 40 Minute adjusted stats show an increase in steals, assists and blocked shots. His 15.6 points and 11.3 TRB's topped Stein's 13.8 and 9.9 numbers. The gains he showed on his advanced stat lines are even more impressive:
Billy Donovan was looking for a starting center in 2013 when he recruited Johnson. In the second round of the 2015 NBA Draft he was looking for a player willing to put his team first, embrace his role and show up ready to work every day and when Donovan got a second chance to coach Dakari Johnson he took it:
"Dakari is somebody who, still being young, still has a chance to grow and develop and get better. I think a frontcourt player of his ability offensively, as he continues to grow on the defensive end, I think he's got a very, very bright future."
Future being the optimum word in that statement because Dakari is not yet ready to play in the NBA. The concept of "work hard or don't play" is now "work harder or don't get paid". He has the size to play in this league and he has some skills, now he must learn how to overcome his limitations and that means finding something unique he can use to carve a niche for himself in the NBA.
I have heard it said that it is not always the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog that matters and that may be true, but I guarantee if the biggest dog also has the biggest fight he will always come out on top. My guess is that a smart guy like Dakari Johnson will figure that out.