Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
Kentucky’s Dakari Johnson Predicted an NCAA Championship a Year Ago
ARLINGTON, Texas— A year ago Sunday, Dakari Johnson predicted Kentucky would win the NCAA championship in 2014.
The 7-foot Johnson had just delivered 18 points and 8 rebounds to help lead Montverde (FL) Academy over Tyler Ennis and St. Benedict’s Prep in the ESPN National High School Invitational championship at Georgetown Prep in North Bethesda, Md.
“It means so much…coming out here and winning a national championship,” a smiling Johnson told the world on ESPN. “And I’m going to win a national championship at Kentucky next year.”
Here we are a year later and Kentucky is two wins from making Johnson look like Nostradamus.
“I’m used to stages like this,” Johnson, one of five freshmen starters for coach John Calipari, said here Friday on the eve of Kentucky’s Final Four matchup with Wisconsin. “Last year we won a national championship in high school so it would just be great to win a national championship in college, too.”
After winning the 2012 NCAA championship, Kentucky had a record six players chosen in the NBA Draft, including three freshmen.
Whether they win or lose a second NCAA title in three years here this weekend, the Wildcats will have another group of players chosen in this year’s draft.
And while four-fifths of the Fab 5 starting freshmen group — Julius Randle, James Young, Andrew and Aaron Harrison — could get drafted, Johnson likely won’t be.
“He 100 percent should stay [at Kentucky],” Montverde coach Kevin Boyle, who coached Johnson at two high school stops, told SNY.tv. “I just don’t think he’s ready for any significant playing time in the NBA. I think he’s much better going another year or two and next year averaging 12 points and eight or nine rebounds and then the team [Kentucky] looks a lot differently too.”
Johnson appears destined for the NBA, it’s only a question of when. At this point, DraftExpress.com has him projected as the No. 18 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.
“He has gotten in better shape,” Calipari said of Johnson, who has had to step up in the absence of injured big man Willie Cauley-Stein. “He has really focused his game on a few things. He’s a big body. He’s seven-foot tall and he’s got long arms and big hands and he’s just getting more confident and more confident.
“And the ceiling is obviously a seven-footer who can run and has got skills, he’s obviously a high ceiling.”
As far back as Johnson’s freshman year in high school at St. Patrick in Elizabeth, N.J., if not earlier, he was seen to have NBA potential.
“Oh, I think he’s a pro,” Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who played at St. Pat’s and Kentucky and is now with the Charlotte Bobcats, told me three years ago. “I really think he’s a pro in the future. He’s what, 6-9? All muscle. That’s a big boy in practice, I’ll tell you that. I gotta guard him, too, so man.”
Johnson’s mother, Makini Campbell, a former English teacher at St. Pat’s, stands 6-foot-5. His father, Thomas Johnson, is 6-10.
Dakari was born in Brooklyn. His name is derived from the Swahili word for happiness, dakarai.
At the age of 15, he was bigger than Shaquille O’Neal was at that age, and his mother said then he projected to be 7 feet or taller.
Campbell played ball at Long Island University, and her brother, Kojo Black, played for Stony Brook.
Johnson first played organized basketball at the age of 8 at the famed Gauchos Gym in The Bronx.
“He’s coming from a family of sports, significantly basketball,” Campbell told me in 2011. “So I did get him started.”
When Johnson was 11 or 12, he moved with his mother to Lexington, Ky., for “a change of pace,” his mother said. He spent his middle schools years at the Sayre School in Lexington and still has extended family there.
It was there, in the shadow of Big Blue Nation, that he developed his passion for Kentucky basketball.
Dakari and his mother soon returned to the Northeast as his mother sought work.
“Unfortunately, what brought me back up here was unemployment and the economy,” she said. “I moved back home, close to the family.”
Once she returned to Newark, Campbell said she began searching for high schools for her son.
Campbell said one of the reasons she selected St. Patrick was the presence of talented older players like Kidd-Gilchrist, Derrick Gordon and Chris Martin .
“He had a lot of options, but that was one of the things that I looked at closely was, who else was on the team,” Campbell said. “Making sure that that pressure wasn’t going to fall on him and he had an opportunity to make some mistakes.”
Campbell said “the tutelage of Coach Boyle” was also a key factor in her decision.
“Wonderful coach, wonderful coach,” she said.
A month and a half into the school year, George Meier, an English teacher at St. Patrick, left the school to go to Chicago when his father passed away.
At that point, the school hired Campbell to take his place.
“We had an opening,” former St. Pat’s principal Joe Picaro said. “She’s certified in English and guidance, so we certainly got a big steal.”
Both Boyle and Picaro compared Johnson to former St. Patrick standout Derrick Caracter, who overcame a troubled high school career to be drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers.
Still, Picaro said, “not even Derrick Caracter” was as agile as Johnson as a freshman. “And Derrick Caracter was certainly very agile.”
In 2011, Johnson was a raw freshman when St. Patrick played St. Anthony in the mythical national championship game at a sold-out Rutgers Athletic Center where the crowd included Calipari, who was there primarily to see Kidd-Gilchrist.
“He was a real young player when I was recruiting Michael, and I had watched him,” Calipari recalled here.
Johnson wasn’t a huge factor in the game, which was won by a Kyle Anderson-led and Bob Hurley-coached St. Anthony team in a rout.
“He still was young carrying baby fat,” former St. Anthony and current Buffalo assistant Eric Harrield told SNY.tv. “The game seemed to be too big for him at the time. You could see that he was going to be a player though.”
After Boyle left St. Patrick for Montverde that spring, Johnson followed his coach there that July. But he soon learned he would have to sit out a season as per Florida transfer rules and thus wasn’t on the court when Montverde blew an 18-point lead and lost to Findlay Prep in the 2012 ESPN National High School Invitational.
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.