Dakari Johnson arrived at Kentucky surrounded by the hype and expectations that surround most players when they arrive at Kentucky. The 6-foot-11-inch center was a five-star recruit and a McDonald’s All-American and was widely viewed as a future first-round draft pick.
But on the Wildcats’ impossibly deep roster, there was just so much room for just so much talent. As a freshman, Johnson was behind future lottery pick Julius Randle and then-sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein.
As a sophomore, he was behind Cauley-Stein — now viewed as a potential top-five pick — and possible No. 1 overall pick Karl Towns. Johnson was, at times, one of the nation’s more talented bench warmers. He was seventh on the team in minutes as a freshman (14.3 per game) and eighth as a sophomore (16.3).
“Playing around all that talent, sometimes you can get lost in that talent,” Johnson’s mother, Makini Campbell, said by telephone Wednesday. “So he does feel like he has a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. He’s looking forward to showing what he can do, to carve out his own space.”
Johnson, who headlined the Celtics’ six-player workout Wednesday, is now considered a late-first or second-round pick. After averaging 5.2 points and 3.9 rebounds as a freshman, he tallied 6.4 points and 4.6 rebounds per game last season. Those are not typically the statistics associated with an NBA prospect.
“I don’t think he was ever going to be a freakish athlete who kind of jumps over people,” said Jonathan Givony, publisher of DraftExpress.com. “But I thought he had a pretty good year in limited minutes. I thought he was pretty productive.”
In 2010, Kentucky center Daniel Orton was drafted with the 29th overall pick after averaging just 3.4 points and 3.3 rebounds as a freshman. Size always will be intriguing, and Johnson, for one, is an above-average rebounder and has shown potential as a shot-blocker. He maintains that his uninspiring statistics were more a matter of opportunity than a failure to produce.
“Going to Kentucky is gonna make you better,” Johnson said. “That’s the one thing I learned going there. Each day, each practice, you’re gonna go against pros every single day.”
When Johnson, Cauley-Stein and Aaron and Andrew Harrison all returned to the Wildcats prior to last season, joined by yet another elite freshman class, it was clear that playing time would be at a premium. But Celtics director of player personnel Austin Ainge said prospects don’t need to play 35 minutes a game for NBA teams to compile a thorough evaluation.
“I think they are such a high-profile program and such high-profile players,” Ainge said of Kentucky. “We’ve all seen them in high school and in summer stuff, and so we see enough of Kentucky players. They did a good job of promoting them and giving them exposure despite limited minutes this year.”
Johnson is still just 19 years old. Campbell said the family discussed returning for his junior year because “there’s fertile soil on both sides of this fence.” Ultimately, however, they agreed that turning pro would offer the best opportunity for growth.
Johnson has been training in Los Angeles with former UCLA star Don MacLean, toning up his 255-pound frame and polishing his shooting, ballhandling, and rebounding. Now, he hopes to prove what he is capable of when the spotlight turns his way.
Wednesday’s workouts also included Pat Connaughton (Notre Dame), Simone Fontecchio (Italy), Darrun Hilliard (Villanova), Royce O’Neal (Baylor), and Matt Stainbrook (Xavier). Connaughton, an Arlington native, said he and Celtics coach Brad Stevens had some friendly banter about the Irish’s NCAA Tournament win this season over Butler, Stevens’s former team. “He’s 1-0 when he faced Notre Dame, and I let him know that’s because I wasn’t there when he faced Notre Dame,” Connaughton said, smiling. “You know, it was fun.”