Ex-Sayre standout Johnson a big man Cats want back in Lexington

broberts@herald-leader.comNovember 29, 2012 

This time three years ago, Dakari Johnson was an eighth-grade man-child for Sayre High School. He was nearly 6 feet 10 then, still a little lanky and still learning the game of basketball.

A year after that, he played alongside Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for a New Jersey school in search of a "perfect season." Johnson came off the bench. He had beefed up considerably, and held his own in one-on-one matchups with the likes of future NBA lottery pick Andre Drummond.

And a year from now, Johnson will patrol the paint for some lucky college coach.

Kentucky's John Calipari is no doubt hoping it's him.

Calipari and several other high-profile coaches have been flocking to Florida to see Montverde Academy ever since Johnson announced earlier his month that he would graduate early and jump to college next season.

Montverde Coach Kevin Boyle said Calipari was there over the weekend for Johnson's season opener.

Georgetown and Missouri visited Wednesday night. Ohio State and Florida have stopped by recently. Syracuse made the trip earlier this fall, and the Orange are expected back soon.

They're all hoping the 6-foot-11, 240-pound center picks their school in the spring.

"He's ready to start right now at any place in the country," Boyle told the Herald-Leader on Thursday. "Not putting down any of those schools, but I think if he was at any of those six schools I mentioned he would start now for them."

Boyle praised current UK big man Nerlens Noel, who many considered the No. 1 recruit in last year's class.

But he said Johnson, the top-ranked center in the country, could be just as formidable.

"The big kid that Kentucky has now is a more athletic player, but Dakari's definitely further along in his basketball IQ," he said. "If he was at Kentucky now, he'd be getting very good numbers as a freshman."

Boyle then compared Johnson to Hall of Fame center Moses Malone.

He acknowledged the comparison "would be ridiculous" until Johnson proves himself in the NBA, but he made the statement without prompting.

"He doesn't jump great. He's not super explosive. But he's incredibly strong around the basket. Keeps the ball up.

"He's a very good offensive rebounder, and he's actually a very good passer, too. So I think he has an excellent chance to be a real good college player and a chance to be a real good pro player, too."

He's been a very good high school player so far for Boyle, who knows a little bit about UK basketball.

Boyle coached Johnson and Kidd-Gilchrist at St. Patrick (N.J.), which was the subject of HBO's Prayer For a Perfect Season documentary.

The prayer went unanswered, as St. Pat's lost in the state playoffs.

Kidd-Gilchrist then graduated and moved on to UK. Boyle accepted the head coaching job at Montverde, and Johnson followed him there.

The 17-year-old Brooklyn native was forced to sit out last season due to Florida transfer rules.

So this season will be his first and last as an eligible player at Montverde.

Boyle said his star center — who still has family in Lexington — doesn't talk much about recruiting, hasn't made any official visits and will most likely hold off on those until after the season, which continues Friday night with a game against visiting Lexington Catholic.

Johnson has been a force in his first two appearances for the Eagles, the No. 2 team in the nation according to ESPN.

He is averaging 22 points and 14 rebounds despite playing less than 20 minutes per game in the two blowouts.

Boyle said Johnson has shown no signs of rust despite missing all of last season. And he's expecting big things as the season progresses.

"He's intelligent. He's a throwback," he said. "He will have a 40-and-25 game for sure before it's over."

Ben Roberts: (859) 231-3216.Twitter: @NextCats.Blog: ukrecruiting.bloginky.com.

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