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David & David: Could the 2017-2018 season mark Dakari Johnson’s NBA debut?

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The Oklahoma City Thunder affiliate, the Blue, boasts one of the premiere centers to ever grace the Development League— and it’s almost time he makes his NBA debut.

West Virginia v Kentucky Andy Lyons-Getty Images

The Oklahoma City Blue’s season fulfilled most D-League pundits’ expectations, but one man’s game thus far has taken everyone by surprise, leading most to think he is far capable of being an extreme weapon in today’s NBA.

Dakari Johnson has no doubt been a longtime favorite of mine, which is surely evident by the sheer amount of D-League spotlights, performance reviews, and one-on-one interviews I’ve done with him. Ever since his breakout at Kentucky, it’s been indisputable that Dakari has nearly all of the skills required to take on a prestigious big-man role in the NBA, and I strongly believe the 2017-2018 season could be the year he proves it all to fans of the association.

A D-League Shining Star

During the past two seasons playing under the celebrated coaching staff of the Blue, Johnson has improved vastly, working rigorously on his defensive coverage, improving shot depth, and actualizing his team-role.

His most recent clutch-time performances in the D-League playoffs have given plenty corroboration that he’s ready to assume a key position among the Thunder organization—granted off-season cuts provides a slot for him on the roster.

During his last 49 games starting for the Blue, Dakari averaged a team high 18.5 points per game, 7.9 rebounds, and finished the regular season with a 55.7% field-goal rate.

His season achievements have written history in the books of the Blue, as being named to All-NBA D-League Honors marks the first time for a player under the Blue organization.

In addition to earning D-League honors, Johnson achieved Performer of the Week twice, Player of the Month in November —and for the first time in his career was selected to the D-League 2017 All Star Game.

Though the Blue’s season came to an end well into the playoffs, Dakari Johnson’s post-regular season play gave every playoff challenger a run for their money. With a very similar floor time to the regular season, Johnson rose to the occasion through the Blue’s two-series playoff run, adding nearly 25 points per game, 10 rebounds, and a 63% field-goal completion rate.

Dakari In A Thunder Jersey

Johnson flaunting a #44 Thunder jersey during the coming years revolves heavily around the coming offseason, and how the Oklahoma City front office responds to upcoming free agents and the dread-worthy Enes Kanter factor.

If all goes in favor of a NBA debut for OKC, Johnson could actually fit in incredibly well under the hands of the Thunder coaching staff.

This off-season, the Thunder are completely capped out, with no easy path to creating cap space. The NBA salary cap is projected at $101 million. The Thunder have $107 million of guaranteed salary for the 2017-2018 season, and there’s no easy path forward to creating space. And that’s without free agents Andre Roberson, Taj Gibson and Nick Collison, as well as the non-guaranteed contract of backup point guard Semaj Christon.

If the Thunder want to cut salary this coming year to keep Roberson and Gibson and duck the luxury tax, they’ll almost certainly have to bid goodbye to one of their highest-paid players. That could be Oladipo, it could be Adams, or it could be Kanter. Adams is unlikely because of how much Presti values him for team culture. Oladipo is a possibility, but he’s a valuable player to the Thunder because he’s one of the only 2-way play-makers on the team. That leaves Enes Kanter, a skilled player with some very well-defined weaknesses that make him a prime candidate to be shopped this summer.

He’s an excellent scorer and rebounder, but he’s a black hole on offense, and despite improved defense, every impact stat we have rates him as a net negative this year. He definitely has value in certain match-ups, but he’s a specialized tool, and it’s very hard to hide a defensive liability like Kanter at center.

If Kanter is moved, it’s likely going to be for very little salary in return. That could open a path for a cheap signing like Johnson.

Johnson’s capability as a rim protector and rebounder in the D-League makes him a good fit for the modern NBA. He’s shown a little bit of ball-handling, excellent passing for his position, and a solid post game. The one area he might need some acclimatization is in the speed of the NBA game. He’s quick enough to play against professional competition, but he doesn’t have the same kind of elite quickness that some of the better players at center have. In the NBA he’ll be tasked with covering the pick and roll with elite ball handlers, perhaps even switching onto perimeter players, and he may not be capable of doing that. But as a backup center he’d be quite capable of protecting the rim in a conservative defensive scheme and being a solid player at the center spot for a bench that sorely needs some shoring up on the defensive end.

Even if the Thunder don’t move Enes Kanter, they’re going to have roster spots available, and Johnson is probably deserving of one. If he made the back end of the roster, he’d be training and spending time with NBA players and playing against them in practice, probably with an eye to bringing him on as the full-time backup center when Kanter either expires or is dealt in trade as an expiring salary.

Either way, it would be surprising if he’s not wearing a Thunder uniform in the 2017-2018 season. Johnson provides a skill set the Thunder could use at a price tag they probably can’t resist. It’s time for Presti to call him up.

Thanks to guest writer David Brandon, staff writer at 16 Wins A Ring, who specializes in coverage of the Thunder’s NBA salary cap.