Meet the Wildcats: Johnson motivated to make support system proud

A new season brings new players and new stories to tell. Throughout the summer, will be profiling Kentucky’s newcomers in its annual and exclusive “Meet the Wildcats” series. Each story will be accompanied with video. This week is center Dakari Johnson. 

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was the hardest worker Dakari Johnson had ever seen.

As a freshman at St. Patrick High School in Elizabeth, N.J., Johnson witnessed firsthand the sweat Kidd-Gilchrist poured into every practice, the leadership he instilled in every teammate and the will to win he exhibited on every play. To hear Kidd-Gilchrist, the player Kentucky fans got to know and love so much, talk about how difficult Kentucky was, it would have scared just about any other player away.

Not Dakari Johnson.

“Before I came here, he told me how hard I was going to have to work and there are so many challenges I have to face and overcome,” Johnson said. “Just telling me that if I choose to come here, it’s going to be the hardest I’ve ever worked.”

Johnson loved it.

“This is a guy I grew up looking at like he’s the hardest worker (I’ve ever seen), and he’s telling me that even he had a tough time,” Johnson said. “I’m like, this is amazing.”

Dakari Johnson doesn’t want to be called a forward or a power forward. He’s a center, and he likes it that way.

John Calipari has said time and time again that UK isn’t for everyone, but Johnson knew it was the place for him when he heard how hard he was going to have to work. As a player with pro aspirations, he knew that type of demand in work ethic would be the key to getting him to the next level.

“I just embrace it,” Johnson said. “I’m trying to become a better player. I know I have a ways to go in my development of my game. Just coming here, just knowing that I’m not going to be given anything easy, that I’m going to be pushed each and every single day, that’s something I’m looking forward to.”

Though they were teammates for just one year, Kidd-Gilchrist played a significant role in Johnson’s maturity as he began to blow up on the national scene. A key member of a St. Patrick’s team that went undefeated before losing in the New Jersey state championship – the team was the focus of HBO’s “Prayer For a Perfect Season” documentary – Johnson said he looked up to Kidd-Gilchrist as a big brother.

At a time in his life when he said he was immature, Kidd-Gilchrist offered Johnson guidance and an example of what it meant to work hard.

“As a freshman, I was coming in, I was kind of being talked about, (and I had) kind of a big head,” Johnson said. “He kept me (at) ground level. He showed me that nothing was given, nothing was going to be given easy. He just showed me the way and how to work hard.”

Consider Johnson blessed when it comes to influences in his life.

Position: Center
Date of birth: Sept. 22, 1995
Parents: Makini Campbell
Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.
High school: Montverde Academy (Fla.)
Nickname: SlowMo, DJ, Big D
Twitter: @dslowmotion22
Favorite TV show: Law & Order: SVU
Favorite food: Chinese
Favorite superhero: Spider-Man
Favorite player: LeBron James
Favorite hobby outside of basketball: Ping-Pong
Favorite movie: The Waterboy
Favorite artist: Jay-Z

A product of family and friends who are athletes and educators, Johnson feels like he has a standard to live up to.

“I have lawyers, teachers and doctors in my family, so I have to do something positive with my life,” Johnson said. “I have to graduate college. There is no choice. They just look highly of me, and I have to make them proud.”

Chief among his agents of influence is his mother, Makini Campbell, who has been by his side since the start to steer him down the right path. An educator for nearly two decades, she’s been Johnson’s biggest fan and most loyal supporter during his basketball rise.

“We’re so close,” Johnson said. “When I was younger, she was always strict on me and I wouldn’t understand it. I used to fight her back all the time. I was kind of a problem child for a little bit. She always taught me the right way. I couldn’t come home with a C. It was always A’s and B’s. She was really strict. She would just look out for me and want the best for me, and I’m just proud to have someone like that in my life.”

Campbell has served in an academic role throughout Johnson’s life, including as a middle school guidance counselor at Montverde Academy, Johnson’s last stop before college. She played college ball at LIU, although Johnson jokingly dismissed that she played much of a role in his development on the basketball court.

“She wasn’t an athlete, if you call it that,” Johnson said, laughing. “She always talks about how good she was, but I’m not trying to hear that. She stopped playing me one-on-one when I was about 13 and I was getting too big, and then she started faking injury. Never played again.”

Either way, between the athletic background and the academic passion, there was no dodging his mother’s influence, though Johnson tried.

“There was no escape,” Johnson said. “I tried multiple times. She would never let me get off track.”

Johnson and his mother butted heads when she decided they were moving to New Jersey after middle school to be closer to family and friends. He actually spent sixth through eighth grade in Lexington, attending and playing basketball for Sayre Middle School.

Though Johnson was from Brooklyn, N.Y., he didn’t understand at the time why his mother was uprooting him from his friends in the middle of his adolescence.

“It was real difficult,” Johnson said. “At a young age, I didn’t really understand why we were moving. I was angry and stuff, but down the road it was the best decision for me and my family.”

Without the move, Johnson would have never been a part of that St. Patrick’s team and would have never grown close to Kidd-Gilchrist. He would have never have met his high school coach, Kevin Boyle, who he grew close to and followed to Montverde Academy.

It was at Montverde that Johnson became one of the best big men in the country.

Meet the Wildcats

Even though he had to sit out his sophomore season because of Florida transfer rules, he was asked to join USA Basketball’s U17 World Championship team in Lithuania after his sophomore season, where he averaged 5.0 points and 4.3 rebounds en route to a gold medal.

In Johnson’s junior year – the first season he could play at Montverde and his last in high school – his team won the national high school championship, where Johnson, the MVP, led a late charge with 18 points and eight rebounds to rally his team from a double-digit deficit and win in the closing seconds.

“That moment was just so unbelievable,” Johnson said. “Hopefully I can win (a championship) this year.”

Without the move to New Jersey and then to Florida, Johnson doesn’t know if he would have become the No. 1 center in the country, as he’s rated now by most recruiting services. Believe it or not, Johnson, already a powerful post player as a freshman, came off the bench for that St. Patrick’s team, but the talent level at Montverde – Johnson teamed up with Division I signees Kasey Hill (Florida) and Devin Williams (West Virginia) — and Boyle’s desire to play the best teams in the country forced Johnson to get better, a move that should pay dividends in UK’s rich talent pool.

“That’s why Coach Boyle was so great because we played a national schedule,” Johnson said. “Basically we played a college schedule. We played all the top teams. I’m just used to playing guys bigger than me or the same size as me. I think I’ll be ready (for Kentucky).”

With his stock on the rise and his high school credits seemingly in the bag, Johnson decided during the season that he wanted to get a jumpstart on his college career, bypassing his senior season at Montverde to reclassify to the 2013 class.

His mother, always focused on education first, was OK with the decision.

“I had all my credits in high school and I felt like I was mature enough to make that jump,” Johnson said. “It was a family decision. I just sat down with my mom. It was something that we wanted to do.”

“Dakari’s improvement over the last year and a half has been phenomenal. His ability to be a true low-post threat adds an important piece to what our team will really need. He’s patient when he gets the ball on the block and has a great understanding for how to use his size for a kid his age. Dakari is a great student and a great kid. He’s won a high school championship, a world championship with Team USA, and he said he wants to win a national championship with us and an NBA championship. That statement says a lot about the type of winner he is.” — Coach Cal
Campbell approved the decision after seeing her son mature into the man she knew he would become.

“She didn’t let me go until after my sophomore year when she noticed that I was getting it,” Johnson said. “I was doing my work and it was constant. She just wanted me to do good for myself.”

Still, Campbell played an integral part in the recruiting process. Faced with a final list of UK, Syracuse, Georgetown, Kansas, North Carolina and Ohio State, Johnson and his mother felt most comfortable with Calipari and Kentucky. Naturally, as an educator, academics played a significant factor in where Campbell was letting her son go.

“Nothing was getting past her or anything,” Johnson said. “She just made sure that I was taking my time and that I was making the best decision for me. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s mom, Cindy Richardson, she’s real close with her, so I know they had a bunch of talks and stuff like that. She just felt like this was somewhere I could go … and learn how to be a man.”

Coming back to a place of familiarity and somewhere Johnson had built part of his life was certainly a factor in his return to Lexington. Johnson stayed in touch with his coaches and friends throughout high school, and he always like the laid-back, “little country” community of Lexington despite his big-town roots.

“Just knowing a lot of my old coaches here at Sayre … and all my friends still down here, if this was the option I was going to choose, I knew I would be coming back to a family base,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s blessings don’t stop before the basketball court. He was fortunate at a young age to grow into a college-like body at a young age.

Standing at a healthy 6-foot-11, 260 pounds, Johnson has always been bigger than just about anybody else he’s ever played against. He was 6-4 in seventh grade, and he sprouted to about 6-8, 6-9 by the time he was in eighth grade.  He was always the big kid everybody tried to grab on to when he got the ball in the paint, the kid that parents would complain about being unfair competition for their 5-10 child.

Unlike some of Kentucky’s recent big men, most notably Anthony Davis, Johnson didn’t learn the game as a guard and blossom into a low-post threat. He’s been a traditional center from day one, and he’s never shied away from that.

“I was a little uncomfortable with my body just growing into it,” Johnson said. “Once I got adjusted to it, it was great.”

He isn’t one of those big guys who wish they were a guard deep down, or one of those lanky forwards who like to roam the perimeter and try to shoot 3s or take his man off the dribble. That’s not who he is.

Johnson is a center through and through. In a day and age where players want to be known for their versatility and ability to play at multiple positions, Johnson embraces his position in the paint. He knows he’s best at beating the opposition on the block with his strength. Perhaps that’s why Boyle has praised him so often for his basketball IQ.

“I like it,” Johnson said. “I like rebounding. I like banging down low. That’s what I do best, so why would I try to go away from it? I use it to my advantage.”

Johnson is the first to admit that he’s not the most athletic guy and that he needs to work on developing some skills outside the paint if he wants to make it to the next level, but he’s more than happy to put in the work to take his game to the next level.

He knows and realizes he has been blessed thus far in his life with influential mentors, a championship pedigree and physical gifts, and he knows it’s up to him now to make the most of it. More than anything, Johnson just wants to make everyone proud for helping him get to this stage.

“I’m very blessed,” Johnson said, “but that keeps me working harder.”