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Building an American Comeback: Dakari Johnson

The last season featured a handful of professional basketball players born in the USA play abroad after having being part of the NBA or the G League in the prior two seasons. We review their 2019-20 seasons in the CBA and/or Euroleague in this series of articles, to know what they did and the chances they have to making it back to America.

Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) League 2018/2019 Second Round - Jiangsu Dragons Kentier v Qingdao DoubleStar Eagles Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images/Visual China Group via Getty Images

There is no room at the top-tier of American professional basketball—the NBA and the G League, by extension—for everyone to be part of it. Every year we have a plethora of undrafted free agents luckily signed to contracts from NBA/G League franchises to become part of their squads. Every year, too, we see a lot of kids and veterans finding no place in the best hoop leagues in the world, thus looking for chances abroad.

That is not the most common path to building a sustainable career in the NBA, for sure, but for athletes that have worked their whole lives around basketball, it surely is one way to try to reach the pinnacle of the sport in the country where the best hoopers happen to play in.

In this series, we will explore the 2019-20 season of some American players that played basketball either in the CBA (top Asian league, and a place for ex-NBA veterans and young undrafted players) or the EuroLeague (the best-combined league in Europe and the consensus second-best league in the world only behind the NBA). All of these players also played in the NBA or the G League during the 2017-18 or 2018-19 seasons, so they are not too separated from their playing days in American soil and could still be re-called by an NBA franchise soon if they keep their level of play up.

Dakari Johnson - Quingdao Eagles (China - CBA)

2019/2020 CBA League - Beijing Begcl v Qingdao Double Star Eagle Photo by Fred Lee/Getty Images

If there is a player worth looking at starting with his very early days, that’s Dakari Johnson. We have been hearing Dakari’s name for almost 10 years, yet Johnson is just 25 years old (he celebrated his birthday on Sep. 22nd) these days. Yes, he was barely 15 when he started making headlines, although for all of the good reasons.

Back in 2013, in his senior year playing high school basketball, Johnson was enrolled into Montverde Academy’s program. In case you’re not too versed on HS hoops, Montverde was about to turn into a powerhouse back then. In fact, Dakari (the no. 10 senior in the nation that year), along with no. 8 Kasey Hill, became the first two top-50 players to feature for the Florida-based prep before they went on to produce the likes of D’Angelo Russell, Ben Simmons, or RJ Barrett in the following years while winning multiple championships in the meantime. Even before that, as a high school junior, Dakari was playing ball at St. Patrick School, another staple of HS hoops that had nurtured Al Harrington, Kyrie Irving, or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

With such pedigree attached to his name, Kentucky lost no time in recruiting the already-massive, 6-10, 250-pound center in a 2013 class that the Wildcats filled with Julius Randle, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Johnson, James Young, and Marcus Lee, all of them top-15 (!) prospects. In his freshman year in Kentucky, sharing the floor and trading starts with Randle and Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari already reached the National Championship Game in March, which Kentucky dropped against UConn. As a sophomore, he found himself battling for minutes with another stud—this one for real—in Karl-Anthony Towns but he was part of one of the greatest college basketball teams ever assembled, featuring KAT, Devin Booker, Cauley-Stein, Trey Lyles, and the Harrison brothers. No luck, though, as they fell short again, this time in the semifinals.

Even dealing with such strong teammates, Dakari closed his two-year career playing 15.2 mpg and averaging 5.8 ppg and 4.3 rpg in those limited minutes and opportunities. Enough to make him a second-round pick (48th-overall) by the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015 and kick-off his professional career. Professional, I said, and not NBA. The Thunder stashed Dakari in their G League team, the Oklahoma City Blue, from 2016 to 2018, where he played 109 games starting 106 of them with sound averages (16-8-2 with 1+ bpg). In fact, by the time he was called up to the NBA squad Dakari was averaging 23.3 ppg, 10 rpg, 3 apg, and 1.1 bpg in the G League, which is to say insane numbers.

Sadly, Dakari’s NBA spell was short and not very good. He played 31 games for the Thunder as a 22-year-old rookie in his third pro-season already, but he topped at 9 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocks, with his best game coming in a starting-effort in which he played 18 minutes against the Nuggets and finished with an 8-3-0-1-1 line. Oklahoma traded Dakari to Memphis in the summer of 2018, but he never made it there with the Grizzlies waiving him before the end of August.

What did Dakari Johnson do after that, you say? He moved on from his American playing-days and flipped them for a chance at playing basketball in China. And to be honest, the decision can’t look much better in hindsight.

After being named a G League All-Star and into the 2017 First Team, Dakari kept his accolades coming in 2019 when he helped the Anhui Oriental Dragons of the NBL (the Chinese CBA’s minor/developmental league) to a title while getting MVP honors. As you see, Dakari has fought adversity since the day one, has been forced to prove his worth on and on but has always come out on top. That season in the minors helped Johnson score himself a gig in the CBA’s Qingdao Eagles, where he’s played full-time since the 2018-19 season.

Saying that Johnson has “played” for the Eagles is perhaps falling short of what he’s actually done on Chinese courts, truth be told. In back-to-back seasons in the Chinese circuit, Johnson has played 45 and 29 games finishing with the exact statistical lines both times: 23 points, 14 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steals, and almost 2 blocks per game. Those numbers have made Johnson a true outlier among CBA players, at just 24 years of age. During this past 2019-20 season, only nine players posted averages of 20+ points and 10+ boards through the year; only three of them did so playing in at least 29 games, Dakari being one of them. The only player to come close to his averages was one that might ring a bell: former NBA-player Donatas Motiejunas.

Among players with at least 25 games played in 2019-20, Johnson finished third in FG% (.622), 17th in PPG (23.7), third in RPG (14.5), and fifth in BPG (1.6). What’s not to love about this kid?

Actually, it is possible that his player profile and skill set, in the shape of old-time big men, is working against him. In his two seasons the CBA, Johnson has only attempted 11 combined three-point shots while hitting one of them. Dakari is a classic big man, plain and simple. He’s there to man the zone, post-up foes, score in the paint, and grab a more than healthy diet of rebounds. But that’s it. Don’t expect any floor-stretching tendencies flowing in his body, because it is not going to happen any time soon.

Just a few days ago, by the start of September and in advance to his 25th birthday, Dakari signed a one-year extension to stay in China playing for the Qingdao Eagles in 2021. While it is not known if the contract includes and NBA-out clause, it likely does, as is the case in 99% of deals involving former NBA players. While it is possible that a move back to the States won’t happen at least for another year, Johnson is already peaking and it is hard to envision much improvement coming his way (but I mean, how do you even improve on an amazing 23-14 line while playing 30 minutes a game?).

If there is an NBA franchise interested in the services of the Kentucky alumnus and former Thunder hooper, it pretty much knows what it will be getting: a serviceable big to drop in the paint adding pounds and muscle to it, but nothing even remotely close to the present-day unicorns that populate the Association these days.

There aren’t many players in the NBA averaging more than 20 minutes and shooting no three-pointers per game: Clint Capela, DeAndre Jordan, Mitchell Robinson, Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams, and the already-mentioned former Kentucky teammate Willie Cauley-Stein were the only ones in 2020. All of them other than Robinson are older than Johnson, but they are also arguably better all-around players that are proven at the NBA level.

It’ going to be hard for Dakari Johnson to make his way back, sure, but he’s got plenty of time ahead, and well, if Cauley-Stein could find himself a place in the league, nothing says Dakari couldn’t do so in a couple of years to reignite his American dream.