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By LARRY VAUGHT
Dakari Johnson averaged 17 points, 11 rebounds and 4.3 blocked shots per game last season for Montverde (Fla.) Academy and led the team to a National High School Invitational championship by claiming most valuable player honors. He was a McDonald’s All-American as well as a Jordan Brand Classic selection. He also played for Team USA’s under-17 team in 2012 and averaged 20 points and five rebounds per game.
Yet Kentucky coach John Calipari admits he’s been surprised by how good the 7-foot, 265-pound freshman center has been since arriving at Kentucky in June.
“Body fat’s down 6 or 7 percent. His weight’s down. So now all the sudden he’s running better, he’s more nimble on his feet. His conditioning is better, which means he’s trying to dunk balls,” Calipari said. “A lot of times you say, well he plays below the rim because it was his choice. Now he could have played higher, but that’s hard. I mean, ‘For me to do that all the time, oh my God. I’ve got to work like crazy.’
“Yeah, now you’re starting to see it. And I think he’s challenged by Willie (Cauley-Stein). Like, I’m not going anywhere. ‘If it’s me and you, I’m going at you.’ You know, ‘either you fight me back or I just bury you.’ So, it’s good.”
Johnson shared these thoughts during an interview last month:
Question: With lawyers, doctors and teachers in your family, how did you end up a star athlete?
Johnson: “I started when I was young. My uncles would take me out just to play against them and older cousins. They kind of would beat up on me a little bit when I was playing. I would get mad and angry and stuff like that. It just pushed me to want to become better. Finally I am catching up now and taking it to them. That is how I got the urge to stick with the sport.”
Question: Are you the only star athlete in the family?
Johnson: “My uncle (Kojo Campbell) went and played Division I in college (for Stony Brook). My cousin (Michael Murray) plays at Coppin State. He is a senior now. That’s really it. My grandfather and mom (Makini Campbell) both played at LIU. I wasn’t the first basketball player in my family.”
Question: Did you always embrace being a center and not want to play guard or power forward?
Johnson: “I just like to use my height. Since I am bigger than everybody, why not use that to my advantage. Just go at guys, stay in the pain and use what I can do and just play hard.”
Question: When coach John Calipari admitted he had underestimated you, is that because you have gotten better since you got here?
Johnson: “Over this summer I improved a lot and improved my body. Also after my high school season I really did a lot of weight training and really worked on my skills. I am trying to become the best player I can be. Since I got my body in shape, I feel good about where I am at. I still have a long ways to go, but just getting more athletic is my main concern right now. That was my weakness, or what a lot of people said. I think I am getting a lot better at it right now, but I have a ways to go.”
Question: Did you quit eating or what did you do to get your body in better shape?
Johnson: “When I first got here, it was tough. (Strength and conditioning) Coach Rock (Oliver) has done a lot with me. Just running and stuff like that. I am on a strict diet right now. Just eating less carbs and more vegetables and fruit. He is really strict on me, but I am eating good. I still get plenty to eat, just the right foods and not the bad foods and all the carbs and sugars and stuff like that. I am trying to eat right.”
Question: How big a role did former Kentucky star Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, your former high school teammate, and his mom have on your decision to come here?
Johnson: “Michael told me it would be hard coming here. He is one of the hardest workers I have ever seen. Just practicing with him my freshman year of high school and seeing how hard he works and he’s telling me how hard it is here, that did wonders for me. I can push myself. His mom told my mom how good a school this was and that they really push you and coach Cal really looks out for your son. That set the script.”
Question: What did you learn about yourself playing in the all-star games and winning a high school national championship?
Johnson: “Just winning the national championship and being part of the McDonald’s and Jordan Brand games made me realize I am up here with the big guys and I have to keep striving to make that next level. But it definitely showed me that I could hang with anybody as long as I compete and I could win anything as long as I compete.
“It would mean so much to win a title here now. Before I came here, I said I wanted to win a high school national championship and a college national championship and then hopefully a NBA championship. I have one of those downs and still two to go. That would mean so much to me.”
Question: Is that one of the biggest reasons you came to Kentucky?
Johnson: “I knew the talent I would be around and I looked at the setting and I saw we had a real chance to do something special here, so that was a big part in my decision.
Question: Do you surprise people with the way you do run the court?
Johnson: “Yeah. I have always been running the court like that. I just keep on trying to better myself and just trying to get in better shape. I think I am doing a much better job of that right now.”
Question: Can you outrun center Willie Cauley-Stein?
Johnson: “No, Willie is fast. He used to be a football player. He is really good. He runs up and down the court and I think that helps me, too, just keeping up with him helps my stamina and conditioning. We go at each other all the time. We know it is going to make both of us better. He has a lot of skills.”