By Nick Gallo | Thunder Basketball Writer | firstname.lastname@example.org
LAS VEGAS -- The end of quarter isolation didn’t go well, but besides that Thunder center Dakari Johnson’s game was just as powerful and potent as it has been for the past two seasons. When his team needed a bucket midway through the fourth quarter against the Charlotte Hornets here at the Thunder’s first Summer League game of 2018, the ball went into Johnson on the block for a turnaround jumper.
Later in the quarter, with the game still tight, Johnson fed PJ Dozier on a backdoor alley-oop with a nice pass over the top from the elbow. The execution of that sideline out of bounds play was surely attributed to Johnson and Dozier’s experience with the Oklahoma City Blue and Head Coach Mark Daigneault. Yet still, Johnson’s skill level for his size, at 7-feet, 255 pounds, is remarkable.
Whether it was his ferocious baseline spin and dunk, precise footwork to clear room under the rim or deft hook shots, a slimmed down Johnson showed his ability to put the ball in the basket. On defense, Johnson’s size makes an impact, but he and Daigneault both note that his deficit of natural athleticism must be made up for by intelligence and promptness.
“The athleticism, I’ve been very honest about it in the past. That’s just understanding who you are as a player,” Daigneault continued. “But his size is NBA size. When you’re going to the basket and he’s there, that’s a deterrent. It’s just a matter of getting him to those spots as early as possible.”
Johnson said he’s been in Oklahoma City almost all summer, utilizing a strict diet, hot yoga and cycling to help keep his body in shape. It’s “ongoing maintenance” according to Daigneault just because of Johnson’s genes, but his diligence has been remarkable.
“(Johnson) worked hard this summer. He’s learned what decisions he needs to make with his diet,” Daigneault said. “You have to be an expert in the system and then you have to be a student of the league and a student of who you’re playing against.”
In an 88-87 loss for the Thunder’s Summer League squad, Johnson finished with 20 points on 7-for-14 shooting to go with eight rebounds and three assists in just 25 minutes of action. Johnson played the way he seemingly always does, moving opposing big men with his massive frame and knack for finding a window to toss in a shot. His dirty work around the glass helps him pick up extra possessions, and often finish them off with buckets.
With 47.9 seconds left and the Thunder down 85-83, Johnson was fouled hard on a put back attempt. After peeling himself off the hardwood, Johnson calmly knocked down both free throws. With less than 24 seconds to go Johnson posted up again on a set piece, this time finding a cutting Rashawn Thomas for a crucial, game-tying reverse layup. Since he’s been in the Thunder’s system, the organization has tried to make use of the burly center’s affinity for making plays with the pass.
“In our offense this summer league, a lot of it is about cutting and moving without the ball,” Johnson explained. “So it’s just finding the cutters and they do a great job of setting their defender up and going back door.”
“(Johnson) has really good court vision. He is an unselfish player. I think he plays at a pace that allows him to see the game a little bit more slowly,” Daigneault said. “It’s an advantage when you have a big that can pass like that. It brings the rim protection away from the basket.”
After one free throw by the Hornets, Johnson had a chance with the ball on another set piece out of a timeout. Catching the ball at the top of the key, Johnson made a move, but the defense converged too quickly, and the Thunder’s last gasp was snuffed out. Johnson’s skill level is high, but just with every player here at Summer League, he still has strides to make ahead of him.