Dakari Johnson Finally Gets His Chance

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When the NBA first implemented its development league, part of the thought process was that eventually, each team would have its own minor league affiliate of sorts. Players would be able to develop and mature while receiving guidance from the parent team in hopes of one day breaking through and making it to the big leagues.

For former Kentucky Wildcat Dakari Johnson, his journey to the NBA followed that exact path. Drafted by the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015 with the 48th overall pick, Johnson has spent the past two years playing for the Thunder’s G-League affiliate, the Oklahoma City Blue. After an impressive showing in the Orlando Summer League, the Thunder rewarded Johnson with a two-year deal.

“It feels good. I was in the D-League the past two years working on my game,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “It felt good for me and my family, but there’s a lot more work to do.”

During his two-year stint with the Blue, Johnson steadily improved his game and tried to show he was worthy of an NBA roster spot. In his first season with the Blue, Johnson started 47 of the team’s 50 games and averaged 12.3 points per game on 53 percent shooting from the field, while pulling down 8.1 rebounds and blocking 1.2 shots.

His second year with the Blue was when he really broke out and made the basketball world take notice of his talent. He started all 49 games and increased his numbers to the tune of 18.5 points per game on 55.7 percent shooting. He was the youngest player to be named to the G-League All-Star team, and he upped his numbers even more in the playoffs with 24.8 points on 63.2 percent shooting and ten rebounds.

“It’s a grind, when you’re in the D-League the ultimate goal is the NBA,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Every night you really just got to always get better and grind it out.”

As part of being the parent affiliate to the Blue, Thunder team personnel are able to interact with players and give feedback on what they could improve on. Although this is going to be his first official year in the NBA, Johnson believes he has a bit of an advantage having been able to work out with Thunder personnel for the past two years.

With veteran big men such as Patrick Patterson, Steven Adams, Enes Kanter and Nick Collison on the roster, Johnson is looking forward to learning from them. He is confident that he can be a difference maker in the Thunder rotation.

“I’m just coming in there to learn from the bigs that they already have there, just to get better,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a great organization. The past two years I got a lot better with them coming out of college, just to progress with my game and just learn from the veterans.”

One player on the roster whom Johnson is looking forward to playing with is Russell Westbrook. Westbrook was the MVP of the league after turning in a historic season. He led the league in points per game with 31.6, and along with his 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists, joined Oscar Robertson as the only two players to average a triple double for an entire season.

“I’ve known Russ, I’ve been around the program for two years. He’s a real good dude on and off the court,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “He’s a real true leader, he’s very vocal, he’s gonna tell you what you’re not doing. He’s a real cool guy.”

Westbrook has been instrumental in getting his teammates together for summer workouts. Most of the Thunder roster has been out in Los Angeles training with one another. Johnson has been impressed with the way he’s been welcomed into the organization as a rookie.

“We have workouts Monday through Thursday so we’re just working out here, playing pickups and there’s a lot of good guys out there,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Everybody is cool with each other, it’s a real close-knit organization.”

On the strength of Westbrook’s leadership and the team’s cohesiveness, the Thunder surprised many and finished 6th in the Western Conference. This summer, with the major addition of Paul George, the team may have some loftier expectations.

Regardless of where the team finishes next season, Johnson believes the team is unified in their mindset as the start of the season draws near.

“Always to win, that’s our expectation,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “All the guys just want to get better and that’s what we’re doing right now, just trusting each other and just getting better.”