Two years after he left Kentucky, Dakari Johnson is still waiting to make his NBA debut, but a promising showing in this week’s NBA Summer League could help his chances to make it this fall with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“It’s given me a lot of confidence,” the 7-foot center said Wednesday after a game-high 18 points for the Thunder on 8-for-11 shooting at the Amway Center. “Just to go out there and compete, it’s been a great week so far.”
Johnson, still only 21, was a second-round pick by the Thunder two years ago after his sophomore year at Kentucky, but he’s been limited to playing for the team’s developmental-league affiliate, the Oklahoma City Blue.
Johnson has played for the Thunder’s Summer League team and has played well — entering Wednesday’s games, he was second in the eight-team league in scoring at 19.5 points per game, and third in rebounding at 8.0 per game.
Johnson’s play in the NBA D-League — now called the G League after a sponsorship deal with Gatorade — improved greatly in his second season. After averaging 12.3 points as a rookie, he scored 18.5 this past season, and in six playoff games he averaged 24.8 points and 10.0 rebounds.
“It’s all about repetition — I put a lot of work in, and that’s what the D-League is for,” he said. “It helped me develop. If you’re playing over and over and getting that court time, it helped me get more comfortable. I’m shooting a lot more jump shots, being comfortable in the post, working on my defense. I got to work on a lot of aspects of my game.”
By keeping Johnson in the G League, Oklahoma City has given him playing time and responsibilities he didn’t even have at Kentucky, where he averaged just 5.8 points and 4.3 rebounds in his two seasons, playing behind future NBA players like Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns.
“I have no regrets,” he said of his decision to leave college early. “I knew it was going to be a tough road ahead anyway. Having a chance to chase my dream is all I can ask for. My time at Kentucky was great, going to two Final Fours. It was a blessing.”
Johnson’s statistics were up nearly across the board in his second season with the Blue — his free-throw percentage went from 58 percent to 68, with increases in his assists, steals and blocks. He understands his defense is still a limiting factor he’ll need to improve to earn more minutes in training camp and make his case to stick.
“It’s just my defense — being early to spots, because I know I’m not the fastest or quickest guy,” he said. “Just communication on the defensive end, and I think I’m doing a good job with that but I need to keep improving.”
This week in Orlando, Johnson has even brought the ball up the court on occasion, a look that Thunder coaches wanted to see as they see how his skills are developing.
“He’s a guy that’s got a lot of skills, and you try to leverage the skills of your best players,” said Mark Daigneault, who has coached Johnson with the Blue the last two years and is serving as the Thunder’s Summer League head coach. “That wasn’t something he was doing in his first year, but he’s established himself as a really good post player. He can play in the pocket. He can really handle a pass. We’re figuring out ways to use that to our advantage.”
The Thunder has a solid Kentucky presence already in center Enes Kanter and power forward Patrick Patterson. Four years ago, Johnson was finishing his days at Montverde Academy, just west of Orlando, and he’s worked hard to remain patient as he waits for a chance to prove himself as an NBA player.
“I’m only going to get better. I’m only 21,” he said. “I know I have time, but I have to keep improving. It feels like I’m a veteran, but I’m only 21. This past year in the D-League, I can’t stress how much it’s helped me.”