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Two-Year Grind Paid Off For Dakari Johnson - LEX18.com | Continuous News and StormTracker Weather

Two-Year Grind Paid Off For Dakari Johnson

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AP Photo/John Raoux AP Photo/John Raoux

By LARRY VAUGHT

Dakari Johnson knew his path to the NBA would not be easy when he decided to leave Kentucky after his sophomore season in 2014-15 despite UK’s 38-1 finish.

He was a 7-foot physical presence with the ability to score inside. He was a second-round draft pick with the 48th overall pick by Oklahoma City. But unlike UK teammates Devin Booker, Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles that went in the first round and straight to the NBA in 2015, he played the last two years in the NBA G-League with the Oklahoma City Blue.

He averaged 12.3 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.6 blocks his first season in the G-League and did not miss a game. He was named to the NBA G-League All-Rookie Team. This past season he played so well in the G-League that he was named to the league’s all-star team when he averaged 18.5 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.3 blocks per game.

“The last two years were a grind. It’s a process. I stuck with it. I never took anything for granted. I looked at it as an opportunity to get better. I took advantage of it and focused on getting better,” Johnson said. “I got rewarded but I still have a lot of work to do.”

He did get rewarded. He signed a two-year guaranteed contract worth over $2 million with Oklahoma City.

“This was always my goal to play in the NBA,” Johnson, who was back in Lexington last week, said. “I had a couple of offers to go overseas and play. But I wanted to grind it out and knew eventually it would benefit me.”

He’ll be playing at Oklahoma City for former Florida coach Billy Donovan, who tried to recruit him when he played at Montverde Academy in Florida. Instead, Johnson went to UK and played against Donovan’s teams.

“Coach Donovan is a real down to earth guy. We do talk some about the Kentucky-Florida rivalry even if it is part of the past. My good friend Kasey Hill played for him at Florida. It’s just playful talk about Kentucky and Florida with me and coach Donovan,” Johnson said.

“It’s kind of crazy how things come full circle. That’s why you always want to build relationships and never tarnish anything. I am excited now just to be around the veteran players. I have worked with them in the past and they are good guys. It will be another great learning experience for me and give me a chance to prove myself and continue to learn at the same time.”

Johnson stays in contact with his former UK teammates. He saw many of them recently at Julius Randle’s wedding. They are still not over the 2015 Final Four loss to Wisconsin that cost UK a national title and perfect season.

“It will always kill me that we did not win the national title. I try not to think about it, but I think we all felt like we could and should have won,” Johnson said. “We all still talk and stay in contact with each other. It’s a close brotherhood. For me, it helped me grow up at Kentucky. I learned how to work and make this a business. Coach Cal (John Calipari) and (assistant) coach (Kenny) Payne do a great job preparing you for what is to come and how hard you have to work.”

Two more of his former teammates, Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins, are trying to start a NBA career as free agents. Willis has signed a non-guaranteed one-year deal with Detroit. Hawkins is still trying to find a team to invite him to training camp.

“They both have to be ready to take advantage of any opportunity they get,” Johnson said. “I really think they both have a bright future if they work hard like I know they will. It’s all about effort and opportunity. They have the talent. They just have to grind and when they get their chance, grab it.”

Just like Johnson has done.

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