The Brooklyn, N.Y. born and raised Dakari Johnson wasn’t far from the Barclay’s Center, where the 2015 NBA Draft was held, on June 25. With family and friends instead, Johnson anxiously awaited to hear whether his name would be called.
NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum strolled to the podium when it was time for the 48th pick to be announced. With a few words after the quick two minutes on the clock, the Thunder’s second round selection was announced, and Johnson’s household erupted with excitement.
“It was crazy. When my name got called, my family and friends jumped up with joy,” Johnson said. “I have been playing this game since I was eight years old. Hearing my name called was great.”
During two seasons at the University of Kentucky, Johnson, a 7-foot, 255-pound center, averaged 5.8 points on 53.7 percent shooting and 4.3 rebounds while playing 15.2 minutes per contest. He battled every day in practice with frontcourt teammates Karl-Anthony Towns, the 2015 number one overall pick, in addition to lottery selections Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles.
There was always a battle for playing time in Lexington, but Johnson managed to carve out a niche. When he found out he was headed to Oklahoma City to play for the Thunder, there was a sense of comfort. With a talented squad with players like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison to learn from, Johnson views the Thunder as a perfect chance to continue learning and growing.
“It’s a veteran team with a lot of veteran leadership. I knew it was a place where I could be a sponge,” Johnson explained. “I’m very excited. The coaching staff does a great job of helping us be prepared for it. I’m going to work with them to keep improving my game.”
Just days after he was selected, Johnson made the trek from New York City to Oklahoma City, beginning his NBA journey. Pre-summer league workouts commenced at the INTEGRIS Thunder Development Center, where he started work with Thunder assistant coach and former NBA post presence, Mark Bryant.
A week later, he was in Orlando competing for the Thunder’s Summer League squad, where he racked up 8.6 rebounds per game, third-best amongst all players, and most amongst players who competed in all five games during the week. Johnson also scored 7.6 points per contest while playing 26.8 minutes per game. The Thunder’s coaching staff has immediately gotten to work with Johnson, helping him hone his skills that can be assets in the NBA and work on areas of improvement on both ends of the floor.
“We watch film each and every day,” said Johnson, beginning to describe his offensive development. “I’m learning how to play pick and rolls, how to sprint into pick-and-rolls, dive, take my time and be patient with my moves. They do a good job of teaching me how to be a pro.”
“It’s being vocal, being the anchor in the middle, talking a lot and helping the guards in pick and roll coverage,” Johnson elaborated, when asked about the defensive side of the ball. “With my wingspan and being long, it’s about affecting a lot of shots.”
It won’t just be Bryant, Ibaka, Collison, Steven Adams and Enes Kanter who help Johnson as he enters the Thunder program, be it on the 15-man roster, with the Oklahoma City Blue or elsewhere. In fact, there will be a familiar face greeting him as he strives to improve his game in the form of new Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan.
Johnson was a highly rated high school prospect who Donovan recruited at the University of Florida, so the two are already well-acquainted with one another, if the six matchups between the Gators and Wildcats over the past two seasons weren’t enough. Training camp is still more than two months away, but Johnson is already excited to get to work with Donovan, along with his teammates and the rest of the Thunder staff.
“He’s a really cool guy on and off the court,” Johnson said of Donovan. “He’s a very good coach. He knows his x’s and o’s. He has great offensive schemes and defensive schemes. He’s going to work with you. They’re all about player development in Oklahoma City.”