It’s Time For Dakari Johnson’s NBA Debut

Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images

The casual NBA fan probably does not know who Dakari Johnson is, despite being in pro basketball for two years, playing for one of the most prestigious high school basketball academies, and being a member of the 38-1  2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats’ squad. That is just a part of his resume.

Let’s backtrack his basketball career:

Johnson, a 7-foot center born in New York City, played his high school ball at Montverde Academy in Florida. As a senior, Johnson was teammates with point guard D’Angelo Russell and forward Ben Simmons. You may have heard of them.

Montverde finished the 2012-13 season (Johnson’s senior year) 27-2, ranked number one in the state of Florida and number three nationally. Johnson left Montverde as the number seven ranked recruit in the Class of 2013, according to the ESPN Recruiting Rankings. Along with Julius Randle, the Harrison twins, James Young, and Marcus Lee, Johnson was a part of the 2013 Kentucky recruiting class that ranked number one nationally.

Johnson played in all 39 games, making 18 starts,  in the 2013-14 season for the Kentucky squad that made it all the way to the National Championship Game. Johnson averaged 5.2 points and 4 rebounds in 14.1 minutes per game.

Going into his sophomore year, Johnson was actually pushed back on the depth chart. Kentucky’s 2014 recruiting class featured top front-court players Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, and Willie Cauley-Stein.

Johnson once again played in all 39 games, but made no starts for the Wildcats. Instead, he was a key reserve on a team that started 38-0 before being upset by Wisconsin.

Following the upset, seven Wildcats including Johnson declared for the 2015 NBA Draft, six of which would be drafted. Johnson was taken 51st overall by the Thunder.

Oklahoma City never signed Johnson, instead owned the tender to his draft rights. Johnson expressed interest in playing for the Thunder, and he signed with their G-League affiliate, the OKC Blue where Johnson has played for the past two years.

As a member of the Blue, Johnson is averaging a career 15.4 points, 8 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game, including 18.5 points per game this past season. Johnson led the Blue to a 34-16 record last year, losing in the Western Conference Finals.

In Orlando this summer, Johnson played his third summer league for the Thunder. He continued his success from the G-League season, averaging 18 points and 5.5 rebounds in 4 games. He put up those numbers despite sharing the frontcourt with Vince Hunter, who broke out in Orlando averaging 16.3 points and 7 rebounds per game.

Johnson’s success within the Thunder organization have many wondering when he will make his debut for the NBA team. Recent changes with the Thunder roster could lead to Johnson making his debut this year.

With the Thunder signing Patrick Patterson, Raymond Felton, and acquiring Paul George, cap space is becoming more minimal for OKC, especially if they want to extend Russell Westbrook. They have already let Taj Gibson walk in free agency, and longtime Thunder vet Nick Collison could retire this offseason. The Oklahoma City frontcourt needs to be revamped with young, cheap talent.

One option would be trading Enes Kanter. After this year, Kanter has a player option remaining on his deal. His current cap hit is nearly $18-million.

While Kanter provides good rebounding and an offensive punch from the center position, his defense has been atrocious. OKC could replace Kanter with a much cheaper option, Dakari Johnson.

Johnson has two seasons of professional basketball under his belt, and he will be just 22 years-old by the start of the season. Oklahoma City would likely be able to sign him to a very team friendly contract, something like 2-years, $6-million. With that contract, Johnson’s cap hit would be $15-million less per year than Kanter.

The big man has done about all he can in the D-League (now G-League). Johnson was named to the 2015-16 All-Rookie Team, and he made the 2016-17 All D-League First Team, despite the league possessing other very talented centers.

A big question coming out of college was Johnson’s offensive game. At Kentucky his game was limited, but he expanded his game.

In his rookie year, Johnson averaged 12.3 points per game, and he followed that up with 18.5 points per game this past season. That is a 6 point improvement from his last year at Kentucky and another 6 points from his first year to his second.

Aside from that, Johnson finished second this year in scoring at the Orlando Pro Summer League, with 19.5 points per game and he averaged 24.8 points per game through six D-League playoff contests.

Johnson’s high scoring numbers can be attributed to the improvements in his skill set. He has worked on his footwork, and instead of solely using his 7-foot, 255 pound frame to score, Johnson has developed a post-up game. Johnson can also hit the occasional jumper, and can surprisingly work off the dribble against slower defenders.

While Kanter may make a bigger offensive impact, Johnson can certainly hold his own.

On the rebounding end, Johnson profiles to be better than Kanter. He is a career 8 rebound per game player, including the summer league where he averaged 10 per game during the D-League playoffs. Johnson is stronger and bigger than Kanter.

Kanter’s biggest weakness is becoming one of Johnson’s strengths. While Kanter is atrocious on defense, Johnson has improved his defensive placement and on-ball fundamentals in the D-League. Johnson has averaged 1.3 blocks per game in his G-League career, while Kanter has averaged just .4 per game in his six season career.

Johnson’s size and strength once again gives him the upper hand. Even if Kanter is not traded, there needs to be a spot on OKC’s roster for Dakari Johnson.

It’s time for this “domestic draft-and-stash” to make his NBA debut.

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