By LARRY VAUGHT
9:24 AM PDT, March 25, 2013
The first time Kevin Boyle saw Dakari Johnson was the summer of the player’s eighth-grade year when his family had left Kentucky and was looking for a new school for him.
Boyle was the successful coach at Elizabeth (N.J.) St. Patrick — he coached former UK standout Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — and Johnson and his family had heard good things about Boyle.
“They just wanted to meet the coach,” said Boyle. “He was always a polite kid. At that age, he was a little bit lazy and out of shape. He was carrying too much weight.”
But the coach and player formed a relationship that continues today. That’s why when Boyle left St. Patrick after Kidd-Gilchrist’s final season to become the head coach at Montverde (Fla.) Academy, Johnson and his family made the move from New Jersey to follow him even though that meant Johnson was ineligible to play as a sophomore. He played this year and reclassified from a junior to senior so he can sign with UK next month as part of the recruiting class being hailed as the nation’s all-time best.
Boyle had coached future NBA players like Sam Dalembert, Al Harrington and Kyrie Irving as well as other standouts like Shaheen Holloway (Seton Hall), Corey Fisher (Villanova) and Dexter Strickland (North Carolina). Now Kentucky is hoping Johnson is another of the former stars Boyle will have coached .
“He was the ESPN Freshman of the Year but he was about 40 pounds over weight that year,” Boyle said. “He knew he had to sit out when he transferred here because of a rule Florida has, but he knew the value of us being together.”
Boyle put him on a P90X® workout program of muscle-pumping exercises designed to transform his body when he couldn’t play last year.
“He worked hard to get ripped and in condition. He lost 45 to 50 pounds to tighten up his body,” Boyle said. “This year the school hired a professional strength coach and he is just in terrific shape compared to 18 to 24 months ago.
“He’s just a great kid. He’s well liked by teachers and the community. He’s not just athletic. He’s well rounded. He’s doing well academically. He is ready for the next level and new challenges. We are excited he is going to Kentucky. We know John Calipari is an excellent coach and that is a great school and environment for basketball.”
Boyle says Johnson is similar to Kidd-Gilchrist in that both “like being part of a team and don’t look for individual attention” at any time.
“Dakari has a different personality, but both are genuine, nice kids. Very humble,” Boyle said. “Forget athletics. They are just good people. It’s refreshing to see a kid with all the notoriety that Michael has had since a very young age never change. He loved his experience at UK and misses that.
“Both Michael and Dakari could have gone for 25 (points) and 25 (rebounds) every game at other schools. But they see the bigger picture of a system that makes them accountable for basketball and school, a system that makes sure they are a good person and learn to play with other good players like they would in college and if good enough, the NBA. Both moms recognized the value of being in a disciplined program that understood the big picture.”
Johnson is not as advanced skill-wise as Kidd-Gilchrist, but he was chose for the Jordan Brand Classic and McDonald’s All-American Game. He played on Team USA last summer.
“He has gotten a lot better,” Boyle said. “Like most kids his age, he’s a work in progress. He is a very good passer out of the post. He is starting to develop a jump hook. He can set a screen and hit a 15- to 16-foot shot. He’s just now getting comfortable utilizing all that in games. He’s not a great jumper or athlete. He is an outstanding player, but it is critical for him to utilize his body mass and size for rebounding and contact so he gets separation to shoot. Another way to get his offense is to set that screen and hit that 15-footer. He’s really worked hard in those area. That will show more next year when he can’t get to the basket as easy.”
Boyle coached UK freshman Nerlens Noel in an all-star game and watched the adjustments he made to his overall game at UK this year before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
“He made great strides at Kentucky. Dakari can do the same thing,” Boyle said. “He’s had good training here, but they do an excellent job at Kentucky working with the bigs. Each season he is there he will be a good offensive player and he’ll grow offensively each year. He’s a legit NBA player in the future.
“He will be a big guy for Kentucky that will create a lot of contact. Nerlens is more of a shot blocker but Dakari will be more physical than anybody they have when he posts up. It’s like hitting a brick wall when you hit him. He’s 260 pounds and rooted in the ground and is hard to move. You bump into him, he doesn’t move at all. He will give them a different type of post presence. It won’t be a high flying, shot blocking presence like Noel or (Anthony) Davis. It will be more of a physical presence.”
Boyle says not to believe that Johnson cannot run the floor, though, because of his size.
“He is a big kid but he runs the court and has gotten faster,” Boyle said. “We payed the best high school teams in the nation. We have played six teams that were ranked in the top five at one time. He’s had good success sprinting and getting to the rim after getting a rebound. He has no problem keeping up and sprinting to the rim. He’s also a big body if he is trailing the play that can set a screen on a point guard because he’s a big body to try and get around. You will likely have a sore shoulder if you run into him.”
Johnson not only will be playing in the two prestigious national all-star games, but Montverde Academy will play in the fifth annual National High School Invitational April 4-6 at Georgetown Preparatory School’s Hanley Center for Athletic Excellence in Bethesda, Md. All eight teams are ranked in the ESPN 25 Power Rankings and six are in the top 10 including No.1 Findlay Prep and No. 2 Montverde Academy. ESPN will televise the event.
“It’s truly a national championship and comes right after the McDonald’s Game (on April 3 in Chicago). But he’s excited about all of that,” Boyle said. “He’s also excited about getting to Kentucky. I had the good fortune when I was at Seton Hall of playing in the UKIT at Christmas time and got to experience the crowd. I know that’s at another level.
“Nobody rivals the spirit and intensity. Those fans have passion 365 days a year for their basketball team. For anybody that likes basketball, that is an exciting environment. It is an incredible opportunity for Dakari.”
Boyle has no idea which current Wildcats might still be on the roster with Johnson and other talented incoming freshmen next season. However, he noted what a big role veterans Darius Miller, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones played when Kidd-Gilchrist won a national title at UK two years ago.
“You like to blend experience with new talent,” Boyle said. “It’s just hard to win with all freshmen. Having a blend of some guys back helped Mike’s team. I just don’t think the team this year had quite enough overall experience, no guys to lean on to learn.
“I coached (freshman) Archie Godwin (in all-star play). He’s a terrific player and talent. But it just takes time to learn and understand. He was used to having the ball more and scoring himself. Now he had to adjust to not always having the ball. Every freshman has to make adjustments like that and so will Dakari. That’s why if some players return, it will help all the freshmen a lot.”