The NBA Development League has grown substantially since its launch and teams have yet to make full use of their affiliate rosters – and the Thunder are no exception. Let me introduce you to the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s development team. The Blue are stationed in downtown OKC, at the Cox Convention Center, right across the street from the Thunder’s Chesapeake Energy Arena. OKC’s family-oriented schedule style will feature 24 home games, and will even include a Wednesday morning matchup on March 8th against the Long Island Nets in the Thunder’s arena.
Currently the Blue boasts a twelve-man roster consisting of eight forwards, three guards, and one main center. My ultimate issue with Oklahoma City’s use of their development team is ironically, their lack of development. Like the rest of the development teams, a majority of the Blue’s players present incredible potential but lack simple in-game fundamentals– hence the need for the league. In particular, one player has caught my eye, and that’s Dakari Johnson, the Blue’s lone center.
Dakari’s path to the D-League began in high school where he attended Montverde Academy after leaving St. Patrick High School to follow his previous coach. After Johnson followed his coach to his new high school, he was forced to sit out the 2011–2012 season in result of the unexpected transfer. In his final season, Johnson successfully averaged 17 points, 11 rebounds and 4.3 blocks per game. After being considered as a five-star recruit by ESPN and even as the number two high school prospect in the nation, Johnson was selected to play in the 2013 McDonald's All-American Boys Game and Jordan Brand Classic in the same year.
After high school, Johnson continued his career by heading off to college and attending the University of Kentucky. While his short college career with the Kentucky Wildcats was nothing to brag about, his contributions, given his sparse playing time, are pretty impressive. During his sophomore year at Kentucky, Johnson participated in all 39 games, averaging 6.4 points and 4.6 rebounds in only 16.4 minutes.
If Dakari had played through his junior and senior year playing more minutes and continuing this consistency, he could have averaged over 15 points and close to 10 rebounds per game. However, Johnson’s lack of playing time was warranted, however, as he was backing up Karl-Anthony Towns, the Number One Pick in the 2015 NBA Draft and the star center for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
While playing for the Blue in the 2015-2016 season, Johnson started in 47 of 50 games and averaged 12.3 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game while shooting 53 percent from the field in nearly 30 minutes per game. Measuring in at seven feet tall and weighing nearly 260 pounds, Johnson possesses the physical traits of a superstar center.
Johnson’s numbers combined with his domination in the paint led to him earning the Development League All-Rookie Team honors. Johnson’s combination of talent, size, and precise footwork led him to a successful first year and could pave the way for a career in the NBA.
Though Dakari Johnson has nearly all of the talent needed to be a dominant center in the NBA on the offensive side of the court, he still lacks skills on defense – and Johnson knows this. He has repetitively admitted that he needs more time to work on coverage, setting solid screens with his teammates, and hustling down the court to set himself up in a reliable defensive position along side his teammates.
Johnson’s play style is certainly familiar if you’ve watched Enes Kanter play before – creating havoc in the paint, taking reasonable shots, and consistently getting rebounds on both sides of the floor. Unfortunately for Johnson, his chances of becoming a secondary starter for the Thunder are extremely slim. With both Steven Adams and Kanter becoming well-known names after last season, Johnson has a better chance of getting a roster spot for one of the other 29 teams in the NBA. With another season or two of development, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Johnson rise out of the D-League and playing the role of the 6th man for another organization in the NBA.