Dakari Johnson spent his two years as a Kentucky Wildcat filling a 6th man role for Coach Calipari. Johnson stayed steadily productive in the role for back-to-back Final Four teams but also could not avoid the shadows of the lottery pick bound bigs ahead of him in the depth chart: Karl-Anthony Towns, Julius Randle, and Willie Cauley-Stein. So when the Oklahoma City Thunder drafted Johnson in the 2nd round of the 2015 NBA Draft, the 7 foot 265 lb. big had yet to showcase much of what he could do.
Thankfully, the D-League exists precisely to let such talents spread their wings and develop skills previously untapped. In the 2015-16 NBADL season, Johnson demonstrated a good sense for defensive positioning in the paint in order to disrupt invading offenses’ attacks at the rim. This led to Johnson helping to anchor the 8th ranked defense in the D-League that season, despite having the explosiveness and quickness of someone who has earned the nickname Slo-Mo.
The ability to find a niche defensively for the Oklahoma City Blue in his rookie season served Johnson well to establish a baseline floor as to his professional basketball contributions, but this 2016-17 NBADL season had him hinting at his ceiling. He got thrust into the role of the fulcrum of a team’s offense for the first time in years and flourished with the extra responsibility. Johnson’s usage rate ballooned from 19.4% in 2015-16 to 26.7% in 2016-17 as he also became a 18.5 points per game scorer.
Even more impressively, Johnson’s scoring efficiency also rose as he began to flash a mid-range set shot more earnestly and even testing out 13 three-point attempts across the 49 games he played. Johnson’s obviously diligent shooting practice has also paid benefits for his free throw percentage, leaping 10 percentage points to marry well with his new aggressive scoring mentality. The improved free throw percentage acts as an encouraging sign the improved range is here to stay.
To crown his achievement of developing his skill-set this much as a member of the Oklahoma City Blue, Johnson elevated his game another level to lead the Blue in the NBADL playoffs just like he did during the regular season. Without a matching increase in minutes, he dominated in the 6 playoff games by scoring 24.8 points per game, engulfing 10.0 rebounds per game, and hitting 63% of his shot attempts. Johnson would cap this dominating stretch with a mother load of efficient scoring in Game 3 of the NBADL Western Conference Finals.
In the unfortunate 114-102 defeat to the Rio Grande Vipers, Johnson did his best to stave off elimination for Oklahoma City by scoring 31 points on only 13 field goal attempts. Not only did Johnson win his matchup against the defensively stout Chinanu Onuaku, but he also offered the Blue its only scoring option in a night where Oklahoma City shot 4 for 27 from beyond the arc.
The playoff elimination will hurt Johnson but now he has the next few months to prove the Thunder organization he is ready to present his talents on a NBA platform. With Taj Gibson standing unrestricted free agent and Enes Kanter potentially being too expensive to keep long-term, Dakari Johnson may finally get the chance to make his way to the Oklahoma City Thunder and shine.