NBA Summer League is a field of dreams for players hoping to achieve the goal of a full-time job at the highest level of basketball. But for players like former Kentucky center Dakari Johnson, it can also be a source of frustration as multiple seasons in the NBA G-League and multiple Summer League appearances haven’t thus far translated into a rotation spot with an NBA team.
“Stay true to the process,” said Johnson in Orlando of his philosophy of continuing to grind daily toward the ultimate goal. “I can’t control anything [external] but I can control how I approach each day.”
For Johnson, that approach includes long hours in the gym working with the staff of Mark Daigneault, who is both Johnson’s head coach with the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G-League affiliate, and the coach of OKC’s Summer League team.
“The coaches really lock you in,” said Johnson of how two seasons with the OKC Blue have helped him. “The gym’s open 24/7. The coaching staff has a plan for you throughout to just develop. So I think it really helped improve my game since I left college.”
Daigneault, the architect of that highly-available and hands-on approach for the Blue’s coaching staff, described how he helps players have the best shot at the biggest stage.
“I think you start with self-awareness and confidence in the reason that they’re there,” said Daigneault. “You make it very very narrow, like, this is who you are. And if you do this every single night, you can have confidence in this. Most of the league is roleplayers. So, helping players to understand [and] discover who they are, and to be able to have confidence in that every night is the start of it.
“And then once they do that, which Dakari did his first year, then you can start to layer on top of that every summer, every offseason, every year. And that’s how they build out their game. It’s a long process getting them there, figuring out where they fit into a professional game.”
That process not only helps players understand who they are, but it obviously makes Daigneault hyper-aware of who the players are that he works with. Asked who Johnson is, Daigneault was very specific.
“He’s a skilled, skilled offensive big that is extremely versatile on that end of the floor,” said Daigneault. “And then he has the size to be an effective rim protector with early help, despite the fact that he doesn’t have a ton of lift, or despite the fact that he’s not going to block a ton of shots. There’s been a lot of very effective defensive bigs like Kendrick Perkins that had those sorts of qualities and that were highly effective. He has an opportunity to do that.
“In terms of the reason he’s an NBA player,” he continued, “He’s seven footer that can do a lot of different things on the offensive end of the floor. Now it’s about continuing to allow the defense to catch up and put him in positions where he can get all that into the game.”
Johnson led the Blue with 18.5 points and 7.9 rebounds last season and his 18 points per game were second among players in Orlando. With Domantas Sabonis departed to the Pacers as part of the trade that brought Paul George to Oklahoma City, it appeared that a spot on the Thunder’s roster was within reach. But while Johnson was in Orlando, the Thunder signed free agent and former Toronto Raptor Patrick Patterson to a three-year deal, which once again clouds the waters.
“When I was at Kentucky he always used to come back and we used to play pickup together,” said Johnson of Patterson, also a former Wildcat. “So he’s a real good guy. He’s a true professional and he’s a real good pro.”
Johnson has done everything right, earning high marks from a coaching staff that takes its craft very seriously. But with the Thunder’s crowded front court situation, he may need to look elsewhere for his opportunity to make it to the next level. New Hawks GM Travis Schlenk told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the Hawks — now engaged in a full rebuild despite Schlenk’s distaste for that term — will look to add three more front court players before the start of the NBA season. Johnson has proven his credentials as one of the top players in the G-League and Summer League. Now he just needs an NBA GM to give him a chance to realize the dream.
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