Dakari Johnson
Dakari Johnson was drafted by the Thunder in 2015. (Photo: Nick Laham/Getty Images)

For Dakari Johnson, signing an NBA contract this past July held a different meaning than it does for most players; at last, Johnson’s time had come. After years of playing the game at the intermediate, collegiate and development-league levels, Johnson had officially become an NBA player.

He spent the past two seasons in the D-League – now named the G League – playing under coach Mark Daigneault on the Oklahoma City Blue. Johnson thrived during his short time with the team, being named to the All-Star Team and All-NBA D-League First Team last season. His stellar play caught the attention of Thunder decision-makers and eventually earned him a spot on the A-team.

“He showed tremendous growth on both ends of the floor over the past two seasons, and he’s ready to embark on his NBA career more prepared,” Thunder president Sam Presti said, speaking highly of Johnson. “Dakari adds to the core of young talent on our roster that we feel is an important tenet to our ability to sustain our success as we enter into a decade of Thunder basketball.”

Spending time in the Development League was crucial for Dakari Johnson. Although the relationship lasted just two seasons, Johnson gained a tremendous amount of knowledge from his stint and improved his overall game as a result.

“It helped me a lot,” Johnson told Def Pen Hoops. “It definitely was a grind for me, but it helped me with a mindset and a hunger that most people don’t have. In the D-League, now the G league, every night you’re going up against someone that wants to go to the same place you want to, so you have to bring your best. The coaches on the (Oklahoma City) Blue really help improve your game. They’re always available and they put a lot of focus on helping you grow on and off the court.”

Johnson’s work ethic speaks for itself; he played well during his time at Kentucky, established himself as one of the top players in the D-League last season, and showed out during July’s Summer League. But what many fans don’t know about him, a fascinating tidbit that most players today can’t relate to, is what he dreamed of becoming as a child.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Johnson’s original dream job actually had nothing to do with the game of basketball.

“The one thing fans don’t know about me is that I always wanted to be a veterinarian,” Johnson told Def Pen Hoops.

Despite this, Johnson would eventually move on to a career in the game of basketball and fall in love with the sport. What helped him keep an interest in it?

“Mostly my uncles and older cousin. My Mom also influenced me,” Johnson said. “They all played college basketball at LIU, Coppin State and Stony Brook, so we had a basketball family. When I was younger, I always wanted to be better than them – so that drove me.”

He now spends most of his days in the gym working on his game, or in the film room seeking new ways to improve and take his talents to the next level. With the way the league has changed, he knows he must work to adapt to the new-age game.

“I have focused on every aspect of my game and I still have a lot to improve on,” Johnson said. “I’m only 21, but I would say I have expanded my game a lot more with making moves off the dribble to either score or be a facilitator. Nowadays the NBA is changing, so just expanding my game so that I can do multiple things is the stuff I’m focusing on.”

He was among the top big man passers in the D-League last season, ranking first among centers in assists per contest. He also raised his shooting percentage to a career-high 56 percent while scoring 18.5 points per game.

Nowadays, many big men are asked to play a more versatile style of basketball that may include playmaking and perimeter play. Names such as DeMarcus Cousins, Blake Griffin and Nikola Jokic represent that statement exquisitely.

Regardless of what’s asked of him this season with the Thunder, Johnson says his mindset will remain the same throughout the campaign.

“I just want to get better,” Johnson told Def Pen Hoops. “These past two D-League seasons I have seen progress with my game, and I have noticed the work I have put in. So it can’t stop now. I have to keep going and just enjoy the process and stay grinding, and also stay having the mindset that I’m still in the D-League trying to make it.

“I just want to stay hungry and improve my game.”

At just 21 years old, Dakari Johnson already has a significant amount of talent and advanced knowledge of the game. Besides his willingness to adapt, the one key aspect about him is his desire to improve. He’s a student of the game. A basketball junkie.

Johnson’s primary motivation to succeed is unique – one that only a handful of players in today’s league can relate to. He’s the underdog, a D-League player coming out of the shadows. Much like Miami Heat star Hassan Whiteside, Johnson keeps this thought in the back of his mind each and every day. He’ll carry that thought with him as he embarks on his new journey with the Thunder, where he says he’ll look to do anything he can do to help the team succeed.

“I just want to learn from the veterans and do whatever I can do to help the team,” Johnson said when asked about the upcoming season. “We have some really great vets I can learn from and I’ve been around the organization already for a few years, so I’m comfortable with a lot of the guys – just continuing to grow as a player and a person.

Johnson’s path to becoming a successful basketball player began many years ago when he was a kid, watching big men such as Tim Duncan and David Robinson dominate the game. But his path to becoming a successful NBA player is just beginning.

A 7-footer weighing 260 pounds with a strong, chiseled frame, Johnson has all of the tools and athleticism to succeed in this league. He’s tenacious on the court and is willing to sacrifice time in order to become successful.

Oklahoma City took a chance on him this past July, but it’s a chance Johnson will make his mission to knock out of the park. It’s safe to say that he won’t forget his time in the D-League, and if he can use just an ounce of what he was able to do during his short time on the Blue, NBA fans beware.

Dakari Johnson’s time is coming.


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