His frame disguises the skill level. The height, the strength and power belie his unique gifts: soft hands, deft touch and a feel for passing. At 7-feet tall and 250 pounds, the Thunder’s young center Dakari Johnson has tools that can make him an NBA weapon.
As Oklahoma City Blue Head Coach Mark Daigneault has said on multiple occasions about his players, Dakari Johnson “is here for a reason”. Much like other professionals in similar situations, Johnson is just working towards carving out an opportunity where his skills can be maximized and deficiencies minimized. Two seasons after being selected 48th overall by the Thunder in the 2015 NBA Draft, the 21-year old Johnson is getting that chance.
The Thunder recently signed Johnson to a contract, clearly impressed by his work in the G League with the Oklahoma City Blue, where he was named to the All-NBA G League First Team and was selected as an NBA G-League All-Star. He’ll have a chance to make the roster and compete for NBA playing time, starting in training camp this fall.
“Dakari is the latest Thunder player to have benefitted from his commitment to his development plan with the Blue,” said Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti at the time of the announcement. “As a result, he showed tremendous growth on both ends of the floor over the past two seasons and is ready to embark on his NBA career more prepared. Dakari adds to the core of young talent on our roster that we feel is an important tenet to our ability to sustain our success as we enter into a decade of Thunder basketball.”
During the 2016-17 G League season, Johnson led the Blue to its first Southwest Division title by starting all 49 games and averaging a team-leading 18.5 points per game (13th in the league) and 7.9 rebounds in 29.0 minutes. He was consistent too, notching a career-high 13 double-doubles while scoring in double figures 45 times. For the season, he set career highs in points, assists (2.3), blocks (1.2) and field goal percentage (.557) in the regular season, further proof of his all-around growth as a player.
“I just stay true to the process and work on my game,” Johnson said. “I can control how I approach each day, getting better and sticking to the regimen.”
The scoring, rebounding and bully ball that Johnson displayed is of course the most obvious aspect of his game. Against G League competition, he could surely dominate, even without high level athleticism or a profound vertical leap. But what makes his game remarkable as the NBA continues to evolve is the way he otherwise impacts the floor.
His 2.3 assists per game were first amongst centers in the G League last season. At Summer League in Orlando in early July, Daigneault gave Johnson the freedom to handle the ball out top on the perimeter, attack his man off the dribble and make plays for teammates. Whether it was acting as an inside-out point guard distributing from the paint or putting on the deck to drive and dish, Johnson showed that he can put pressure on the defense in different ways.
“I just wanted to cut him loose,” Daigneault said. “I wanted to get away from post ups with him. He posted a lot the last two years and there’s a lot more he can do. To try to strip that away a little bit and force him to do some different things and show off some of his versatility and show the Thunder staff what he’s capable of with the ball.”
“That’s kind of a layer to his game,” Daigneault added. “He’s a guy who has a lot of skill. You try to figure out ways to leverage the skills of your best players.”
Even while intentionally going away from his conventional strong suit, Johnson still managed to be productive. Per 48 minutes, his numbers at Summer League were quite similar to those he accrued in the G League. At the NBA level, the more centers can do to transfer the ball from one side of the floor to the other and to be facilitators, the more efficient their team’s offense will be.
Johnson’s offensive skill is unquestioned, and it’s why he was a heralded recruit out of high school and a pro prospect at the University of Kentucky. Due to some limitations athletically in terms of lateral quickness and leaping, defense has been Johnson’s number one focus.
Including Nick Collison, a fixture of the organization, and former Thunder stalwart Kendrick Perkins, there’s a long history of NBA big men who weren’t the most fluid, bounciest centers in the game. As a result, Johnson and the Thunder coaching staff know that with some work on the floor, in the gym and in the film room, Johnson can get himself in peak shape – physically and mentally – to be a defensive anchor in the future.
“I’m a physical player. I like to mix it up,” Johnson said. “The coaching staff really wants me talking on defense and being active on the defensive end.”
“The coaching staff has a plan for you throughout to just develop,” Johnson added. “That’s what it’s there for. They’ve helped improve my game since college.”
With the Thunder, he’ll continue right along in his player development work. Through Summer League and simply being around the program in Oklahoma City, Johnson already has a relationship with assistant coach Mark Bryant, whose forte is the front court, and fellow young big men Steven Adams and Enes Kanter. Collison will be back again to round out the group of guys who can play center for the Thunder depending on the circumstances.
Learning from all of them and jumping in headfirst when the moment comes, Johnson will be in good hands in his first NBA season.