(Orginally posted at Upside & Motor)
Dakari Johnson would probably be the best center on the New York Knicks, Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers right now. While it probably says more about the depth at that position on those teams, it’s nonetheless a ridiculous luxury he’s only the third best center on the Kentucky Wildcats, who started SEC play on Tuesday by outlasting Mississippi in overtime.
Johnson enrolled at Lexington last season as just a giant human for someone his age with questionable athleticism and poor ball skills. His conditioning improved as the season went along and John Calipari seemed to enjoy his effort, which permitted him to toy around with Willie Cauley-Stein’s minute-allocation by starting Johnson alongside Julius Randle. He was a vital part of the team’s surprising run to the national championship game, logging 127 of his 550 minutes in the NCAA tournament.
His top skill is his toughness, and he’s playing with enough energy to leverage that into production on the glass. Johnson improved his conditioning once more in the offseason, which is permitting him to leave the ground easier. He can’t elevate as high as position-peers Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns, but Jonhson looks to box out consistently by using the strength in his 255-pound frame to establish inside position. Opponents can’t easily work around him and he’s collecting 20.5 percent of opponents’ misses when he’s been on the floor, according to Basketball Reference.
Johnson also uses that strength to hold his ground on the post and has a nine-foot-one standing reach to effectively contest shots by the man he is guarding.
But there are significant concerns regarding Johnson’s transition to the pro level as well. He doesn’t have light feet and looks extremely uncomfortable defending in space. Texas ran a couple of pick-and-rolls with him on the floor, and Johnson was asked to guard it flat but still high above the foul line. He struggled when forced to move laterally and looked hopeless attempting to contest outside shots by Myles Turner and Connor Lammert due to his lack of closing speed.
Johnson has improved his quickness rotating off the weak-side to contest shots at the basket more effectively than he did a season ago and his shot blocking numbers show. But he’s not a full-time threat to play above the rim at this point and currently projects as constantly being a step too late at the pro level. Johnson posted 10.5 percent body fat on the Kentucky combine, so there’s perhaps more room for improvement in his athletic ability with either another year of college or once he goes through an NBA-caliber strength and conditioning program.
Rebounding is also how he contributes best on offense. Johnson has a short wingspan in the context of his height (seven-foot height, seven-foot wingspan), so he is unable to rebound outside of his area but has managed to muscle his way into prime position below the rim at the college level. Johnson collected 16 percent of Kentucky’s misses on the season prior to the Mississippi game yesterday but lacks explosion to bounce off the ground a consecutive time to score, transforming just 12 of his 31 offensive rebounds into putbacks, according to Hoop Math.com.
He’s played most of his minutes with Tyler Ulis and that has provided him opportunities to catch the ball on the move, roaming around the baseline on the weak-side or in transition. Johnson doesn’t run up the court as fluidly or as fast as Cauley-Stein and Towns but he puts in the effort to stay involved on fast-breaks. Kentucky doesn’t run many pick-and-rolls but when it has, Johnson has proven himself a good screener who looks to draw contact and whose 255-pound frame is a chore for on-ball defenders to navigate around. However, he can’t play above the rim as a target for lobs and is not particularly explosive diving down the lane with momentum. He’s also struggled against length in the past due to a lack of touch at rim level. Ulis has improved Johnson’s shooting percentage at the rim, which suggests he could be able to carry his weight on offense if paired with a high-level playmaker but at this point he’s no Tyson Chandler prototype.
Kentucky runs such a non-structured offense that all their big men get a chance to create on the post from time to time. Johnson can establish deep position but is mechanical with his moves, has very unpolished footwork and lacks touch on his finishes. Johnson has, however, successfully drawn a ton shooting fouls through the 13 games of the non-conference schedule, averaging 11.4 free throw attempts per 40 minutes. His shooting percentage is improved in comparison to last season but remains in the 50s. His makes look good (bends knees, flexes elbows, keeps off-arm pointed up, flicks wrist) enough to suggest he can develop into an average foul shooter over time, though.
He’s actually a very willing passer out of the low block, not just in order to repost but also attempting to hit cutters and shooters spotting up around the perimeter, flashing good feel for the game. His bad hands prevent him from doing this well enough for it to be a legit asset in his skill-set at this point but it’s something to keep in mind. As is the catch-and-shoot mid-range jump-shot from around the foul line area he’s showcased a few times this season.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara.