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By Nick Gray | Sports editor
Five-star recruits are often enigmatic, leaving coaches, players, fans and analysts to question whether their talent will match the high expectations at the college level.
In the case of UK freshman center Dakari Johnson, his teammates and UK head coach John Calipari said he certainly has the talent. However, Johnson has been labeled as a surprise by those same people.
“He’s what you would call a traditional big man. When he pins you down, he’s going to score,” junior guard Brian Long said. “I think teams might have to double him when it is all said and done.”
“(Johnson’s) body fat is down 7 percent, so now he’s dunking everything. I’m sitting there watching him, and in all the stuff we’re doing, he’s easily dunking the ball now,” Calipari said. “He’s one of those bigs that we’ve had to play against where he puts his body on you and you have to do something. One guy can’t do it. So he’s better than I thought. So he’ll really challenge Willie (Cauley-Stein).”
Cauley-Stein, who started 14 games at center last season, said he understands Johnson’s ability.
“Dakari is talented. He is a big, wide body who knows how to use his body. He is super active in the post. If he misses a shot or you block his shot, eight times out of 10 he is getting the ball right back in the same possession,” Cauley-Stein said. “He’s really active on the offensive glass, and it’s pretty difficult to bang with him in the post because he outweighs me by 20 or 30 pounds.”
Cauley-Stein weighs 244 pounds, 21 pounds lighter than the 265-pound Johnson. Both are at least 7 feet tall, were top-50 recruits and were preseason surprises during workouts as freshman.
“We’re two different players. I think we are both going at each other every day during pick-up, so it’s making us both better players,” Johnson said.
Johnson was rated as the top center in his class by Scout and ESPN and as the second center by Rivals, averaging 17 points, 11 rebounds and 4.3 blocks per game in his senior season at Montverde (Fla.) Academy.
Johnson was a McDonalds All-American and played in the Jordan Brand Classic after his senior season, playing with five of his current UK teammates.
Johnson picked UK over Georgetown and Syracuse on Jan. 5, two weeks after naming the Cats as leaders on Dec. 19.
The freshman center enrolled in UK in June, which allowed him to work out when NBA players and former Cats, such as Demarcus Cousins, returned to Lexington to work out at the Joe Craft Center.
“There was definitely a lot to learn (against Cousins),” Johnson said. “I learned that day how to play against someone my size or bigger than me, and that’s going to help me in the long run, just how to score against guys like that.”