By LARRY VAUGHT
CHICAGO — Kentucky commit Dakari Johnson compares his game to that of Philadelphia 76ers center Andrew Bynum because of his strength, rebounding and low-post scoring prowess. He averaged 17 points, 11 rebounds and 4.3 blocked shot per game for Montverde Academy in Florida this season. He’s a New York native but also lived in Lexington for a brief time in junior high before his family moved to New Jersey.
He’s playing in the McDonald’s All-American Game here Wednesday night — one of at least six future Cats in the game on ESPN — and spent time after practice Tuesday talking about UK, his play, future teammates and even ping pong.
Question: How excited are you about coming to Kentucky as part of the all-time highest ranked recruiting class?
Johnson: “It is great. I have been with my future teammates all week, and it’s real exciting. I wanted to go play with all the great players and I knew if I went to Kentucky that nothing would be handed to me. They wouldn’t just give me a starting position. I will have to work for it.”
Question: How big an advantage could it be for six of you to play together in all-star games and start adjusting to the way each other plays like Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer did two years ago?
Johnson: “It could be huge. We are getting used to each other right now and it looks like we are clicking so far. It could give us an advantage.”
Question: Are the other future Wildcats — Julius Randle, Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Marcus Lee and James Young — better than you even expected?
Johnson: “I have known them for AAU events, so I know they are all great players and that will make me better as a player.”
Question: Do people normally tell you that you are bigger than they thought but that you also run the court better than they expected?
Johnson: “I hear that a lot. I am not really a highlight guy and fly through the air and dunk on people. I just play the game that I love and play it well.”
Question: What is your reaction to knowing that center Willie Cauley-Stein is coming back for a second season at UK?
Johnson: “It is great. I think he helps me as a player. We are two different players. He is more athletic than me and I am more the non-athletic guy and more skilled. But he is a real good player. I think we will complement each other well. In practice we are going to have to have battles and that will make me a better player.”
Question: What if that means more time on the bench for you?
Johnson: “It doesn’t matter to me. I am just all about winning.”
Question: When you lived in Lexington, did you dream of playing for Kentucky and did you pay much attention to UK basketball then?
Johnson: “I was too young to think about it. As I got better, I always knew Kentucky was the right fit for me. I knew Kentucky basketball was a big deal when I was young. It was like a pro team. I went to a lot of games at Kentucky. I like that atmosphere. It puts a lot of pressure on you, but that’s what I want because pressure makes me a better player.”
Question: How hard was coach Kevin Boyle on you the year you sat out as a transfer from New Jersey to Montverde Academy in Florida?
Johnson: “He was really hard at first. I was like really mad that I wouldn’t be able to play. I just worked hard and got where I am right now. I lost about 25 or 30 pounds. I worked hard every single day just for this moment to be a McDonald’s All-American. He’s one of the best high school coaches in America. What is better than to learn from him? We went down there for a visit and the school is just a great school. It is somewhere you can go and get your studies together and really prepare for college.”
Question: Do you ever talk to former UK star Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, your former teammate under Boyle in New Jersey?
Johnson: “I talk to him ever once in a while. He’s busy with the NBA, but he hits me up and texts me or calls me. He tells me when he was there (Kentucky) it was hard on him and he had a lot of pressure and I will have to work. He did try, though, to influence me a little bit to go there. He said that he always knew that is where I was going to go or I didn’t he was going to make me.”