Over the next several weeks, we’ll be profiling each of the seven Kentucky players going pro. Drew kicked things off with a profile of Willie Cauley-Stein, and last week, I profiled Karl-Anthony Towns. This week, we're keeping up the big man theme with Dakari Johnson.
When I think of Dakari, the first thing I think of is his laugh. It's a deep, booming thing that takes over a room, pulling a smile from even the biggest cynic. Dakari's laugh lasts a while and lingers into his comments, which usually start with "Oh, you know," like he's talking to his best friend, because when you're talking to him, that's what you feel like. While it's sometimes hard to get through all the coach speak and media training to some players, one laugh from Dakari breaks down that barrier.
Middle school in Lexington
Dakari first popped up on KSR's radar back in September 2010 as a 6'8" power forward from New York. Unlike most Kentucky recruits, Dakari already had Kentucky ties: he spent his middle school years in Lexington playing for Sayre. Dakari's mother, Makini Campbell (more on her in a minute), said that after elementary school, she moved her family to Lexington from Brooklyn in search of a quieter pace of life.
Freshman year with MKG
After two years in Kentucky, Dakari and his family moved to New Jersey, where he played at St. Patrick's High School with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. This is where Dakari first caught John Calipari's eye while Cal was in town to recruit MKG. This was also the season HBO filmed a documentary on the St. Patrick's program, and while Michael and the most veteran players on the team were the focus of the film, Dakari told us that he had an appearance.
After one year at St. Patrick's, Dakari transferred to Montverde Academy in Florida. Dakari reclassified from 2014 to 2013 at Montverde, becoming the number one center in the class. Because of his time in Lexington, connection with MKG and John Calipari's reputation of putting players in the pros, Kentucky was an immediate leader in his recruitment and on January 5, 2013, Dakari committed to the Cats in a ceremony at his school:
(Check out Dakari's little brother, Kamani, in the background in the gray sweatshirt. Like his older brother, Kamani plays at Sayre, and was a staple around the Kentucky basketball program the past two seasons.)
"The one kid who has fun with it"
On a roster full of big men, Dakari didn't really assert himself until SEC play his freshman year. When the rest of the team was lost, Dakari came off the bench to inject them with some much-needed energy and enthusiasm, whether it be by...
Slapping the floor...
Celebrating a dunk...
Getting the crowd into it...
His role as a starter
SEC play wasn't the happiest of times for the 2013-2014 Cats, but Dakari did his best to remind his teammates that basketball is fun, which is why Calipari made him a starter over a slumping Willie Cauley-Stein after a miserable loss at LSU. With Dakari in the lineup, the Cats got off to quicker starts, but a few games later, Cal went back to Willie. That didn't last long. After Florida routed Kentucky to close the regular season, Calipari knew it was time for another change.
“Dakari needs to be starting, and that’s what we’ll do,” Calipari said. “He’s the one kid who has fun with it.”
Dakari started the rest of the season, helping the Cats to the National Championship game.
After the season was over, Dakari's real work began. Dakari dedicated himself to his conditioning, working daily with Rock Oliver and the team nutritionist to shed the extra weight. Dakari's diet was strict, and he had to give up fast food, soda, and his favorite meal, O'Charley's shrimp linguine and a Shirley Temple with cotton candy on top.
It worked. Come August in the Bahamas, Dakari looked like a different person, or, at least, one that's lost 20 pounds. The new, improved Dakari was able to run the floor quicker and get (a little) higher for rebounds; however, as many of us know, keeping the weight off is a lifelong battle, and Dakari admitted to KSR that during team dinners, his eyes often wandered to Marcus Lee's plate, which was always piled high with food as the staff attempted to bulk the string bean up. The struggle is real, Dakari. Stay strong and allow yourself a cheat day.
His awesome mom
It's clear that Dakari gets his outgoing personality from his mother, and I'll never forget watching Makini in her "MOMMY 44" jersey cheer her son on at Rupp and in the Bahamas. I also won't forget seeing Makini and her family walk to and from the gym in the Bahamas. I'm not sure if they were staying at a different hotel nearby or what, but if they were staying at the Atlantis, that's a half hour trek BY BUS. But Makini and her brood looked happy as clams to make the trek by foot, repping her son across her back the whole way. Looking back, maybe we were the silly ones for sitting in stuffy buses in Bahamian traffic.
Dakari is a goofball, something he attributes to his mother. "My mom, growing up, she always said 'don't take things for granted, enjoy life,'" Dakari said on KSR a few weeks back
. "And that's what I'm trying to do."
That's easy to see, whether it's dancing:
Goofing around with Mitch Barnhart:
Or singing Beyonce on the radio with Matt:
Keep having fun, Dakari. We'll miss you.