Not every NBA Development League player has the type of pedigree that Dakari Johnson has under his name. They also haven’t had the same type of teammates the 7-foot, 255-pound big man had at the University of Kentucky.
For the first time since he was in high school at Montverde Academy in the Florida, the Brooklyn, N.Y. native Johnson had a chance to start and shine at the center position. In 2015-16 Johnson played for the Oklahoma City Blue after being selected by the Thunder in the second round of the 2015 NBA Draft. He started in 47 of 50 games and averaged 12.3 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.2 blocks per game while shooting 53.0 percent from the field in 27.6 minutes per game. Those numbers, along with his physical play on both ends, helped Johnson earn D-League All-Rookie Team honors.
At Kentucky during his freshman and sophomore years, Johnson was a backup behind Julius Randle (seventh overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft) and Karl-Anthony Towns (number one overall pick in 2015 NBA Draft). It’s no surprise then, that Johnson saw more limited minutes (15.2 per game), but his per-36 minute production in college translated nearly identically to what he averaged in the D-League last season.
The main reason that Johnson had success in year one as a professional was simple – he’s massive and talented. His stature combined with his hands and footwork allow him to be a post-up force on the block. At Summer League in Orlando, Johnson showed he can go over either shoulder. The key for him moving forward is to generate clean looks, preventing his shot from getting blocked and continually pushing himself in the weight room.
“On my post moves, it’s making separation between me and my defender,” Johnson said. “I’m using my body to create space.”
The natural instincts are there. When Johnson has the ball on the block, he doesn’t seem flustered or like he can’t wait to get rid of the ball. Whether it’s surveying the defense for a potential pass, reacting to digs from opposing guards or anticipating double teams, Johnson showed a penchant for patience and timing around the rim.
“I’m just learning patience, not rushing anything, taking my time and locating the floor,” Johnson explained. “When I get in the post, I’m basically the point guard out there. Just taking my time and not rushing is a big thing for me.”
In the NBA there’s always a need for size and physicality. Johnson’s got that in spades, but the Thunder coaching staff’s development plan and front office’s roster building will determine Johnson’s role within the organization as a whole next season. For now, Johnson is simply focused on what he can control: getting caught up on the most crucial part of playing at the next level, defense.
“The main thing is on the defensive end, being more vocal and getting up in pick and roll coverages,” Johnson said. “Talking to my guards, helping them out on screens and helping my teammates being there early on defense.”
With an opportunity to be the go-to guy in the post last season, Johnson showed he can be productive and a dominant force in the paint. Rounding out his game to be a factor on both ends is the next step, and Johnson is taking the challenge head on.
Watch: Summer Sit Down With Dakari Johnson