Spring signing period: Dakari Johnson gives Kentucky 'a true center'

broberts@herald-leader.comApril 16, 2013 

In four seasons at Kentucky, John Calipari has never had a center.

He's had some big guys, sure, but none of them have ever had a "C" next to their name on the UK roster.

Calipari's list of post players includes DeMarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton, Nerlens Noel and several others. They were forwards all.

Dakari Johnson will sign with UK on Wednesday, along with Julius Randle and Dominique Hawkins, who also committed late.

Johnson — at 7 feet, 250 pounds — is the No. 1-rated center in the senior class, and he laughed at the idea of being listed as anything else.

"I just like being called a center," he said. "It's just something I enjoy doing. I'm 7 feet tall and I'm bigger than everybody else, so why not take advantage of it? That's how I see it."

That's not the normal way of thinking in today's game, where highly touted 18-year-olds show up on college campuses already molding their image for the next level.

Calipari is always touting his "players-first" program, and a lot of post players don't like to be pigeon-holed.

"I think John is a marketing genius with the media and kids," said Montverde Academy's Kevin Boyle, who has coached Johnson since 2010. "You have a kid who wants to be a guard? Well, announce him as a guard and put him in the same position as you would put a forward anyway. And he'll be happy that everybody heard he was a guard in the pre-game introductions.

"Today's kids — everybody that's a center wants to be a forward. Everybody that's a forward wants to be a point guard."

"He's a true center," Boyle said. "Call him whatever. But he enjoys being in the post area and he enjoys being a center."

Both player and coach say UK is the right place to hone those skills.

Johnson mentioned players like Anthony Davis, Josh Harrellson and Willie Cauley-Stein, who showed great improvement in a limited amount of time working with Calipari and his coaching staff.

Assistants Kenny Payne and Orlando Antigua work a lot with the post players, and Johnson said they were a big reason he picked Kentucky.

When he committed to the Cats in January, a friend and former high school teammate — Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — called Johnson to deliver a warning.

"He said it's going to be the hardest I'm ever going to work," Johnson said.

When the Brooklyn native came to Lexington for his official visit later in the season, he got to see it for himself.

"I saw them work out the bigs and it's not easy at all. It kind of scared me a little bit," he said with a laugh. "They just all did a great job of telling me how they've developed their bigs and how hard I'm going to have to work."

Johnson announced before the season that he would forgo his fourth year of high school, graduate early and make the jump to college basketball.

There wasn't much precedent for such a move at the Montverde Academy in Florida.

School administrators had to be convinced, and even Boyle was a little hesitant.

The coach said he prefers kids to "go through the whole process" before heading to college. But he came around to the conclusion that Johnson is a special case.

"There's an argument with Dakari that he needs the challenge of big-time centers every day in practice to motivate him," Boyle said. "He plays much better and has much more fire when he has somebody who can match him in practice on a regular basis."

Johnson got the opportunity to practice and play against the best high school big men in the country earlier this month at the McDonald's All-American Game and Jordan Brand Classic.

He impressed future teammates and opponents, as well as the many scouts and analysts in attendance.

When the final Rivals.com rankings were posted Monday, Johnson had moved up four spots and was listed as the No. 9 overall player in the class.

He'll face the same level of competition next season in Lexington, and Boyle said that will be a big plus for his development.

"You have (Cauley-Stein), you have (Marcus) Lee, you have Randle, you have a lot of big bodies up front to compete with each other in practice, to accidentally bang and get elbowed in the chin, in the face," he said. "And to really compete at a high, high level every day just to determine who starts and who gets the most playing time.

"That will help him out a lot."

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

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