Oklahoma City Thunder: The rise of Dakari Johnson

By Ryan Lewis

After two full seasons in the NBA’s G League, Dakari Johnson has grown from a player with seemingly little upside to one who has the potential to be something big in today’s NBA.

On draft night in 2015, the Oklahoma City Thunder took a chance on a 7’0″, 255-pound center from the University of Kentucky named Dakari Johnson.

It wasn’t a chance in the sense that Johnson might prove to be a bust, but it was a chance in the sense that, for all the athleticism displayed by Johnson, he wasn’t expected to score a ton of points and he wasn’t expected to develop into a defensive juggernaut.

Without either of those qualities, there seemed to be plenty of question marks surrounding the big man and very little upside for OKC when the Thunder selected him with the 48th overall pick in the second round.

After a subpar career at Kentucky in which Johnson averaged 5.8 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, the biggest question mark was, would the big man develop into a capable center in the NBA? Or would he be relegated to backup status as just one more player who didn’t have what it took to make it as a starter in the NBA?

At Kentucky, Johnson was a role player. Of the 78 games he played in, he started in just 18, and all 18 were during his freshman year. In fact, the level of talent on the 2014-15 Wildcats roster may have played a role in inhibiting Johnson from developing as a player and unleashing his true potential.

Since his arrival in Oklahoma City, Johnson has used every opportunity he has earned to make a name for himself. He has done so as a member of the Oklahoma City Blue, the Thunder’s G League affiliate.

During his first season with the Blue, Johnson averaged 12.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game. In 50 games, he started in 47, and because of his performance during that season, people began paying attention. But that was just the beginning for Johnson.

During his sophomore season as a member of the OKC Blue, Johnson tore through the G League in 49 starts, scoring 18.5 points and pulling down 7.9 rebounds per game. Suddenly, Johnson was appearing to be more of a second round steal rather than a risk.

Things continued to get better for Johnson during a 10-game run with the Blue this past season. Not only did he increase his points per game total for the second consecutive season but he also posted a career high in rebounds, pulling down 10 per game to go along with his 23.3 points per game total.

Per Game Table
2015-16 OKL 50 47 27.6 5.0 9.5 .530 0.0 0.0 .000 5.0 9.5 .531 2.3 4.0 .581 2.7 5.4 8.1 2.0 0.7 1.2 1.6 3.0 12.3
2016-17 OKL 49 49 29.0 7.0 12.6 .556 0.0 0.3 .154 7.0 12.4 .564 4.4 6.4 .684 3.1 4.9 7.9 2.3 0.8 1.3 2.5 3.2 18.5
2017-18 OKL 10 10 31.9 9.4 16.0 .588 0.0 0.0 9.4 16.0 .588 4.5 7.2 .625 5.2 4.8 10.0 3.0 0.3 1.1 3.1 2.8 23.3
Career 109 106 28.6 6.3 11.5 .550 0.0 0.1 .143 6.3 11.4 .554 3.4 5.4 .642 3.1 5.1 8.2 2.2 0.7 1.2 2.1 3.1 16.1

On Nov. 10, 2017, Johnson started for the first time in place of the injured Steven Adams. In 23 minutes of action, he scored nine points in the Thunder’s 120-111 win over the Los Angeles Clippers. With Johnson on the floor, the Thunder outscored L.A. by 26 points.


Johnson found minutes on the court in 31 total games last season, but started just six times. He averaged 1.8 points in 5.2 minutes per game. While his numbers during the season were less than impressive, it is to be expected with limited minutes.

Fast forward to this summer, and Johnson is quietly having another solid Summer League. He’s averaging 13.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game over a three-game stretch.

Johnson was out of the lineup for Thursday’s game against Memphis due to a hip injury:

Once Summer League has officially wrapped up, the 22-year-old Johnson can go back to preparing for the upcoming season. He still has a ways to go before becoming a bona fide NBA star, but he has progressed every season since the draft.

Johnson still has plenty of time left to prove that he belongs on the Thunder roster. He has put in the work and continues to prove that he was the right pick in 2015. In order to further emphasize that point, he will have to take advantage of every minute he gets on the court.


Only time will tell, but how Dakari Johnson has grown over the last two years suggests that he is more than ready to take that next step