Meet the Cats: Dakari Johnson proving to be rim-rattling competitor

jtipton@herald-leader.comOctober 1, 2013 

  • Dakari Johnson

    Uniform number: 44

    Height, weight: 7-0, 265

    Position: Center

    Class: Freshman

    Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.

    High school: Montverde (Fla.) Academy

    Twitter: @dslowmotion22

In Swahili, the name "Dakari" means happiness. In basketball parlance, it means big man who actually wants to be a dominating center in the classic sense of the term. Which might be the same thing.

"I feel like I just enjoy being in the paint," Kentucky freshman Dakari Johnson said this pre-season, "and that's my bread and butter. So I think that's the strength of my game."

Johnson wasted little time making UK Coach John Calipari think happy thoughts. By early September, his percentage of body fat had decreased by seven points. Not coincidentally, Calipari's estimation of the first-year player increased.

"Better than I thought," Calipari said. "... Now all of a sudden he's dunking everything around the rim. Before the question was he plays below the rim. How do you do this?"

Calipari spoke of Johnson as a physical presence around the basket that can command opponents' attention. For all the blocked shots the past few seasons, UK hasn't had a power game since DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson and Daniel Orton pushed people around in 2009-10.

During this pre-season, Johnson bangs with Willie Cauley-Stein in a do-si-do the coaches hope benefits both players. Johnson noted how Cauley-Stein's speed had helped his conditioning and stamina. Johnson's bulk pushes WCS to be more determined.

"It almost has to make Willie mad," said Calipari in a tone that suggested he'd welcome this form of Big Blue madness. "All of a sudden, Willie got mad, and how he's going to have to play came out."

Johnson, who spent his sixth- through eighth-grade years at Lexington's Sayre Middle School, began developing madness as a high school freshman competing against a player whom UK fans came to consider the ultimate competitor: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

"I was still learning the game," Johnson said of that season playing for St. Patrick in Elizabeth, N.J. "Just being under his wing that year was big for me because he's the hardest worker I've ever seen in my life. Just learning how to work from him was a very great thing."

In one-on-one games, the smaller player held the high ground in terms of swagger.

"He'd talk smack," Johnson said of Kidd-Gilchrist. "He doesn't like losing at all. I kind of went back at him. I was still young, so he taught me a lot of lessons."

Johnson said his ties to Lexington helped him choose to play for Kentucky. But he acknowledged how the dream of being an NBA player led to leaving Lexington to play for St. Patrick, then follow Coach Kevin Boyle to Montverde Academy in Florida.

The next step was a return to Kentucky. Kidd-Gilchrist gave Johnson a sense of what playing for UK meant.

"It wasn't going to be easy at all," Johnson said. "... Just hearing that from him, he's one of the hardest workers I've seen. For him to say it's hard, it's pictured in my head: What will it do for me?"

If all goes as expected, it may mean "kutimiza;" the word in Swahili for fulfillment.


Dakari Johnson

Uniform number: 44

Height, weight: 7-0, 265

Position: Center

Class: Freshman

Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.

High school: Montverde (Fla.) Academy

Twitter: @dslowmotion22

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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