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From Kentucky Benchwarmer to NBA D-League Stud: A Look At Dakari Johnson

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Less than a year after being a relative afterthought on a stacked Kentucky squad that featured a handful of NBA lottery picks, Dakari Johnson has used the D-League as a way to improve and showcase his skill in a way that he never was able to.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

As more NBA teams purchase D-League franchises and establish one-on-one affiliations, they've become more likely to "stash" them with the NBADL squad, rather let them flock overseas. The benefits of this are endless; players get an opportunity to learn and develop in the NBA's system while doing so against some of the high quality talent that rests in the D-League.

One of the teams that have used the D-League to "draft-and-stash" their players has been the Oklahoma City Thunder. During the 2014-15 season, the Thunder sent 29th pick Josh Huestis and 56th pick Semaj Christon to the Blue for the entire year. While the results were mixed, it sent a message that they were willing to stick their young prospects with the Blue in a way to watch them develop.

During his two-year career with Kentucky, Johnson was always looked at as the third big inside Calipari's system as he was positioned behind future NBA lottery pick Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles and Julius Randle. That decreased role is also evident by Johnson averaging 15 minutes per game during his Kentucky career. Despite that, Johnson stood as a productive player as he averaged 5.7 points and 4.2 rebounds on 53% shooting.

Additionally, the Thunder currently have five front-court players (Ibaka, McGary, Adams, Collison and Enes Kanter) who will be under contract through the 2016-17 season. That basically gave the Thunder no choice but to stash Johnson with the OKC Blue.

With Johnson making that transition from Kentucky to the NBADL, the young big would get his first opportunity to showcase his skills as a starter. While he wouldn't exactly be the top option on the team, that honor going to Marquis Teague or Talib Zanna, the transition from being a role player to a starter was still a big move for Johnson.

While other inexperienced players would tense up and not be able to fully gravitate to an increased role, Dakari Johnson took that opportunity and has flourished. In 29 minutes per game, Johnson is averaging 12.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game on 51% from the field.

However, more impressive than those solid numbers is just how better Johnson has looked on the offensive end compared to how he was in Kentucky. In college, his main offense came from offensive boards and the occasionalpost-up look where he'd put in a little hook shot after bullying the defender down on the low-block. What's more, Johnson struggled, as he looked lost when he wasn't able to bully and he just didn't have any range on his hook. That is discussed in this DraftExpress scouting report from just days before the 2015 Draft.

Not a focal point of the Kentucky offense, Johnson didn't show much in the way of refined offensive skills during his time in college. The majority of his offense came in post-up situations, and while he improved during his two years, his ability to score against NBA defenders remains uncertain. He has nice post moves for a player of his age, relying most on his drop step and hook shot which he can use on either block and he is patient enough to read the defense before making his move. With his limited explosiveness preventing him from elevating over his defender, he will need quality footwork to be able to score with his back to the basket.

However, he isn't consistent enough in executing his moves, which leads to him either fumbling the ball away or not creating enough separation from his defender, resulting in tough shots. He doesn't show great vision out of the post, regularly missing teammates cutting or spotting up around the perimeter. He also will need to improve his touch and finishing around the rim, as he hit just 41.3% from the field on his post-up possessions according to Synergy Sports Technology. While he won't be fed the ball regularly in the post in the NBA, being able to give his team some quality possessions here and there will help him earn minutes.

Those worries about being unable to execute his moves has subsided, as Johnson looks a lot more confident inside the low-post. When you watch him perform, you can get the sense that Johnson knows what he's going to do before he even catches the ball. He's developed a certain seamless nature to his post-up game which actually looks like current Sixers rookie Jahlil Okafor. While he's not scoring at the level of the Sixers big, Johnson has developed some of the same post-up moves. As evident in the below video, Johnson maintains the following moves: drop step, hook from both blocks, a turnaround shot, and even a sky hook.

Another area of the offensive game where Johnson has been working on is a mid-range jumper. While it's still in the early beta stages, Johnson does have some potential as he has a nice smooth shooting stroke. However, it'll take a lot more work until he develops into the next LaMarcus Aldridge, as he's shooting 37% (on 38 attempts) from between 8-16 feet and 32% (on 25 attempts) from between 16-24 feet.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Johnson's improvement is through his work as a facilitator. Going back to that Okafor comparison, Johnson has established that knack for finding cutters or open perimeter players from the post-up which is something he wasn't able to do at Kentucky. That knack is evident by him averaging an extremely solid 2.2 assists per game with a 1.33 AST/TO ratio.

As Dakari Johnson continues his first season season in pro ball, it's amazing to see just how far he's come since he was drafted last June. The 20-year-old prospect has totally evolved his offensive game to the point where he's shooting 57% from hook shots and has become confident to the point where he's taking shots from outside the paint, which didn't even seem like a possibility when he was with Kentucky.

That kind of improvement in such a short period of time really showcases just how hard Johnson has worked to improve some of the flaws that have been holding him back. While there's still some areas where he'll need to work on (i.e free throw line and becoming more comfortable inside the pick-and-roll), the improvement that he's continuing to make really shows the kind of effort that he puts into reaching that goal of becoming an NBA prospect.

Although that might not come with the Thunder, any of the other 29 teams should recognize that great combination of natural size (7'0 and 255) pounds with a drive to improve on a night-by-night basis. If that drive and hunger continues into the off-season, then it won't be long until Dakari Johnson suits up in the NBA.