By Jamie H. Vaught
Since Dakari Johnson arrived last year in Lexington as a Wildcat rookie from Florida’s Montverde Academy, he really has come a long way.
And the 7-0 sophomore -- along with another 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein -- are arguably the most improved players on this current UK squad, which has been ranked No. 1 since the AP preseason poll came out on Oct. 31.
Johnson, who is actually the only “true” center coach John Calipari has had in his six years at Kentucky, has seen improvement in several areas this season – increased mobility, scoring, rebounding, free throw shooting, defense and his body weight.
His poor free throw shooting was a big concern last season when the 29-11 Wildcats advanced all the way to the national championship game in Texas before losing to UConn. Johnson struggled from the line, hitting 38 of 85 tries for a poor 44.7 percent. And, so far this season, he is nearly 11 percent better, shooting at a 55.6 percent clip (30 of 54) going into Wednesday night’s game with Columbia, an Ivy League school based in New York City.
As you may recall, Johnson amazingly came up with 12 of 14 freebies against UT Arlington two weeks ago in Kentucky’s 92-44 victory at Rupp Arena. He had 12 points and missed his only field goal attempt.
What did Calipari think about Johnson’s 12 free throws?
“I don't know, you'll have to ask him, but I'm happy for him,” he said after the game. “He does want to play and he knows I'm not playing him at the end of a game if he can't make free throws. So he's making them."
According to Johnson, the coaching staff has tried to help him with his free throw shooting woes, advising him to take his time and relax when at the line, instead of rushing and thinking too much, and the former McDonald’s All-American said he did change his approach against UT Arlington.
“I was more relaxed and just after practice every day getting some extra work in with the assistants and stuff like that,” said Johnson, who comes from a family of basketball players. “Just being more relaxed while I’m at the line.”
Calipari later said that Johnson’s 12-of-14 free throw performance shows he is very capable of making the charity shots. His problem was mental.
“So what gets in the way of him making 12 out of 14?” said Calipari. “It’s those six inches between his ears. They weren’t bouncing around and in and swishing, but he’s capable now and he has to have his own confidence and demonstrated performance, which he has had. I say that to other guys on my team. I’ve said it for years.
“Demonstrated performance builds your self‐esteem and self‐confidence – not me. It’s demonstrated performance. Go in and perform. If you play timid, if you play tentative, then you can’t do it. You’re not going to build what you’re trying to build to be a significant player.”
Calipari was asked if Johnson makes his free throws in practice like he did against UT Arlington.
“He does,” said the coach. “At times he’ll miss badly and that’s just because he’s thinking, 'I may miss this one.' Not may, you will. This game is one where my job is not to make them feel good about bad play. My job is to make them understand how good they can be as an individual player. The only thing holding them back in most cases is themselves."
Despite UK's two-platoon system, Johnson is seeing more action this winter, averaging 19 minutes compared to last season’s 14.1. In addition, he has doubled his scoring output last year to an average of 10.0 points a game, the second-highest on the squad behind Cauley-Stein’s 10.3 points. In the rebounding department, his average has increased from 3.9 last season to currently 6.7 rebounds.
Remarkably, Johnson is doing all of that even though he hasn’t started a single game this season since he's playing as a member of Kentucky's second platoon which first comes off the bench generally at the 16-minute mark in the opening half. He had 18 starts last season, including all post-season games.
As for his pro future, Johnson could be a promising star in the NBA. A couple of NBA mock drafts, as of early December, had Johnson at No. 24 and No. 30 in the first round.
According to Johnson, it would definitely help him and his other big teammates such as Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns get the inside job done if the Wildcats can start hitting downtown jumpers from the outside to keep the defense honest. The likeable player said it feels like the opponents are sending three guys at him every time he has the ball.
"It feels like that’s how teams are going to play us,” said Johnson, who was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and once lived in Lexington during his elementary school days. “They know our inside guys can do a lot of damage so they kind of back off and sag in the paint. But if our perimeter guys are hitting shots I don’t think they’ll be able to do it anymore.”
After last season ended in April, Johnson began to change his dining habits. Through his summer diet, he lost weight, eating mostly healthy food. Johnson, whose playing weight was 265 pounds last winter, is currently listed at 255 pounds.
Johnson said the weight loss has helped his mobility on the floor.
“It changes a lot. It means I can run up and down the court better and it just feels like I’m light on my feet,” he said.
Johnson said this year’s Wildcats, who are off to a fast 9-0 start after Sunday night’s 82-49 victory over Eastern Kentucky, are playing much better as opposed to early last season.
“It feels way different,” said Johnson, who last season had a career game against Louisville, helping the Cats to a 74-69 victory during the NCAA tournament in Indianapolis with 15 points and six rebounds in 31 minutes.
“We had a lot struggles last year in the beginning, but it just feels like this year we’re just clicking really well together and we’re just taking things one game at a time and not rushing things."
Even though Johnson is now showing improvement in free throws, he knows he still has to do better if he wants to play more at the end in a very close game. And he is motivated to do it better.
He certainly wouldn't mind an opportunity to be a big hero who makes a game-winning free throw for the Wildcats someday.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of the growing KySportsStyle360.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. Reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle360@gmail.com.