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Dakari Johnson Could Be Key in UK's Elite 8 Match-Up with Michigan

INDIANAPOLIS — Dakari Johnson was discouraged. He had always been the biggest player on his teams, and he always got all the shots he wanted and all the minutes he could stand, and when he got to Kentucky, none of that was true anymore. Even if he knew that was the case, inevitabilities never hit home quite the same until the inevitable actually happens. And once Johnson wasn’t getting all the touches he wanted and enough minutes to wear him out each game, he was discouraged.

Through Kentucky’s 14 games, Johnson was averaging nine minutes and 2.5 field-goal attempts per game, going scoreless in four appearances and earning his first (and only) DNP—did not play—against a smaller, quicker Belmont team on Dec. 21. After Kentucky’s 73-66 win over Louisville on Dec. 28, the Wildcats had 10 days until their SEC opener against Mississippi State.

Johnson met with Calipari one-on-one, seeking solutions to his frustrations. Calipari obliged, telling Johnson what he needed to do to succeed and more actively contribute to Kentucky’s on-court product.

“You can kind of call it selfishness. I wasn’t happy not getting the ball and stuff like that,” Johnson said. “Not really paying attention to what I really needed to be doing, which was defending and rebounding and just letting the offense come to me.”

It took a few games after that meeting for Johnson to start building toward where he is now, but he got there. He has shot 58.9 percent from the floor since SEC play began, and he earned his first start Feb. 1—that had as much to do with Willie Cauley-Stein’s midseason slump, but he still got the call—and has started all but two games since.

His underrated athleticism and emergence as a dangerous post scorer have been key to Kentucky’s postseason redefinition, and it will be even more so moving forward under the assumption that Cauley-Stein won’t play. Cauley-Stein suffered an ankle injury Friday against Louisville and is doubtful to play Sunday against Michigan, Calipari said.

At the beginning of the season, Johnson’s promise generated plenty of buzz, but it was quickly muted when he looked overwhelmed in games. Not only was he overwhelmed, he felt burdened to be losing games for, really, the first time in his basketball-playing life. The confluence of adverse events, or non-events like not playing and not touching the ball, were weighing him down.

Were Cauley-Stein’s injury were to happen on Nov. 28 instead of March 28, Kentucky may not have weathered it. It still may not. But increasing the weight on Johnson’s shoulders at this point is not a dangerous move after he steeled himself for the reality of college basketball and figured it out.

“I’ve seen all the work that he’s put in and how hard he plays, how hard he works,” said Julius Randle, Johnson’s roommate. “All the extra work he’s put in. Just like for any of us, it was frustrating, especially Dakari. He’s never lost. I’ve never lost. A lot of us, we come from winning atmospheres, and we didn’t want to lose. Take a couple of losses and the criticism—we just did a good job not paying attention to it.

“The biggest thing is, at any given moment Dakari could have just let go of the rope. All he did was work harder. He didn’t complain. His hard work is showing up now.”

This story appears courtesy of KY Forward and is written by James Pennington. KY Forward's coverage of UK Athletics is sponsored by Republic Bank.

Photo: Dakari Johnson/KY Forward file