Dakari Johnson Proving He’s Ready For Next Level

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Updated: December 9, 2016

Entering the University of Kentucky as a five-star prospect and one of the top high school centers in the country, expectations were high for Dakari Johnson. Many fans and analysts expected him to come in, dominate for a year or two and move on to the NBA as a lottery pick.

Ideally, Johnson would have landed himself in the top-10 of the NBA Draft after his freshman or sophomore year, but the talent on the Wildcats roster was incredibly talented. With future lottery picks Willie Cauley-Stein, Julius Randle and Karl-Anthony Towns all vying for minutes ahead of him, Johnson fell back in the pecking order and managed to average just 16 minutes per game during his two years at the school.

His value wasn’t anywhere near where he had hoped, but he made the jump to the NBA anyways. Selected by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the back half of the second round, Johnson was jettisoned to the D-League to adjust to the professional level.

After an up-and-down rookie season which saw him appear in 50 games for the Oklahoma City Blue, Johnson chose to come back to the D-League for another year so scouts were able to keep a close eye on him. Though he could have undoubtedly made more money playing in Europe or China, his bet on himself is looking like it’s paying off.

After averaging a modest 12 points and eight rebounds during his rookie season, Johnson has exploded onto the scene through the first quarter of the 2016-2017 campaign. With 20.4 points on 57.6% shooting to go along with 8.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists, Johnson has taken his game to the next level and his production, to along with his impressive 7-foot, 255-pound frame has helped him garner interest around the league.

Because of his impressive start to the season, Johnson was named the D-League’s Player of the Month for November.

Many large increases in production in the D-League can be attributed solely to an increased opportunity and while that is true to an extent for Johnson, who’s playing 3.5 additional minutes this year compared to last, a deeper dive finds some key adjustments to his style of play which have aided his improvements.

As many know, the D-League is a haven for shooters. With many more open looks compared to the NBA level, players can feel tempted to pull up for a jump shot even if that isn’t within their repertoire. Such was the case for Johnson last season, as nearly 30% of his shots came on jumpers, and 15% came from mid-range.

These portions are by no means gaudy, but the fact that he was converting on only 35% of his jump shots and 40.3% from mid-range signaled to defenses that they could sag off of him and hope that he shot it. In addition to those two areas, Johnson was prone to shoot from within the paint, but outside of the restricted zone. Within that area were 21.9% of his shots on the year, of which he made 40.4%.

When he did choose to use his size to his advantage within the Restricted Area, which he did 62.7% of the time, he converted at a much more desirable 60.6% clip. With all of these numbers in mind, Johnson has clearly decided to go back to the basics and play like a more traditional big man.

Throughout the season to this point, Johnson has gone to the jump shot just 21.5% of the time (a near 10% decrease) and only 9.7% of his shots are coming from mid-range (down over 5% from last year). Even within the paint, his non-restricted area shots are down over 8% to just 13.2%.

With all of those numbers down, Johnson has seen his Restricted Area attempts increase by an astounding 13% all the way up to 75.7% of his shots this season, of which he is draining them at a 63.6% rate, which is also improved from last season.

A good portion of this can be attributed to an increased workload in the post, but some credit can be assigned to more tenaciousness on the offensive boards. While his Offensive Rebound Percentage was at an acceptable 10.2% rate last year, he has raised that to 15.1% so far this year and with that has seen his second chance points jump from 3.6 last year to 6.3 this year.

Though he posted respectable numbers on the glass last season, Johnson is on pace currently to out-offensive rebound last year’s season totals (50 games) in just 30 games this year.

His improvement as a rebounder on the offensive end end has not only helped him with direct put-back points, but it has guided him to a large increase in free throw attempts. After shooting just four per game last year (making 58.1% of them), Johnson is now at the foul line over seven times per game and he’s making teams pay by knocking down 72.5% of his attempts.

In addition to his work scoring and rebounding this year, his passing out of the post has also improved. After posting pedestrian numbers last year with former NBA point guards Dwight Buycks and Marquis Teague running the show, Johnson is finding his open teammates as the defense collapses on him.

His Assist Percentage is up to 19% on the year, right on par with Manu Ginobili and his Assist-to-Turnover rate has actually improved despite his Usage Rate seeing an increase from Jodie Meeks-levels to LeBron James-territory.

Last year in the D-League has clearly provided Dakari Johnson with the experience he needed after an underwhelming stay at Kentucky and it appears this is the year he is cashing in on the tremendous potential that he showcased in high school.

By sticking to the basics as a traditional big man and developing as a passer, Johnson has shown to NBA teams he still has plenty of room for growth. With his draft rights still held by the Thunder, the 21-year old Johnson may be forced into waiting a bit to make his debut, but if this season has signified anything it’s that he will make an impact once he’s there.

One Comment

  1. Rpo

    December 9, 2016 at 2:41 pm

    Good read. With OKC roster spaces at such a premium, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one surprised with Dakari’s return to the Blue. He could easily have taken off for Spain or Turkey for substantially more money, but his game this season, as you’ve elucidated, has really taken off. Almost Whiteside-ian. Obviously the work he’s put in with their training staff has paid off, and were he in any other situation I’m sure he’d have already received a call-up. His defensive rotation awareness and anticipation of offensive sets have both noticeably improved in his post-Kentucky time.
    With Collison likely to step aside after this season, (and hopefully into a coaching/player development role with the organization) I can see the Thunder finally rewarding Johnson. Although like Semaj Christon this season, I’m sure they’ll make in earn it.

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