LEXINGTON — In his first four seasons at Kentucky, John Calipari has had a handful of big men like 6-11 DeMarcus Cousins, 6-10 Daniel Orton, 6-11 Enes Kanter (even though he didn’t play), 6-10 Anthony Davis and 6-10 Nerlens Noel.
Because of their big size, some casual fans may have thought these guys played the center position, but they actually were classified as forwards.
And current sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein is 7-0 and he is not a true center, either.
So it means the UK coach actually did not have a true center on the playing roster until this season, his fifth at Kentucky.
That center is 7-0, 265-pound Dakari Johnson, a freshman from Brooklyn, N.Y., who once lived in Lexington several years ago.
A pre-season second-team All-SEC choice by the media, Johnson has been a valuable contributor for the Wildcats this season, averaging 9.9 minutes and 3.9 points entering Tuesday night’s matchup with Texas A&M at Rupp Arena.
In last Saturday’s 74-66 victory against Tennessee, Johnson gave his team a healthy boost when he came off the bench and played 16 minutes, his second-highest total this season. He had four points and four rebounds.
“Willie (Cauley-Stein) didn’t play as well as he’d been playing, and we went with Dakari and he was terrific,” said Calipari.
Johnson and his teammates had to defend UT star Jarnell Stokes, who scored a team-high 20 points and grabbed a game-high 15 rebounds. With his 6-8, 260-pound frame, Stokes was plenty tough for the Wildcats to handle.
“He is really strong,” Johnson said of the Vol junior. “He gets low to the ground. I get higher than he does, and I was trying to play physical with him.”
Sitting on the bench is not easy for Johnson, a McDonald’s All-American who was rated as the No. 11 overall high school player by ESPN and the top player at his position.
“Yeah, it is tough,” he told a throng of reporters Saturday. “But my mom told me to listen to the coaches and get better. I have been trying to do everything exactly as I’m supposed to do it.
“I’m happy for my teammates when they were playing well. I just waited my turn. It starts in practice and has carried over to the games.”
While Johnson — who would have been a starter for most college basketball programs — rebounds very well, he is still learning and working to improve his game such as conditioning, free throw shooting and shot-blocking.
Like several of his teammates, including big men Cauley-Stein and Marcus Lee, Johnson is struggling at the charity stripe, hitting only 15 of 31 free throws for 48.4 percent this winter.
Former UK star Mike Pratt, who is in his 13th year as analyst on the UK Radio Network, likes Johnson’s potential as a physical force.
“(He) seems to be a very hard worker,” Pratt said Sunday. “He has good hands, catches (the ball) in a crowd and uses good footwork after he receives a pass.”
With Calipari basically using a six-man playing rotation with all six averaging at least 19 minutes, it isn’t easy to find a lot of playing time for the benchwarmers like Johnson.
Playing the seventh-most minutes for Kentucky is freshman guard Dominique Hawkins who has logged 208 minutes with an average of 12.2 going into this week’s action.
And Johnson is next with 159 minutes with a 9.9-minute average. Pratt is also pleased that Johnson “has shown that he will compete and hasn’t been discouraged by lack of playing time early this year. He has worked hard to lose some weight and should muscle up in coming years.”
Not surprisingly, Johnson has several tall relatives in the family, including his parents. His mother is 6-5, while his dad is 6-10 and both played college basketball.
The big men often have the tendency to develop at a slower rate on the collegiate level, according to Calipari.
Many folks have also wondered about Calipari’s regular rotation which limits playing opportunities for most of the players sitting on the bench.
Calipari explained, “It’s harder when you’ve got a young team to play more guys because you’re trying to get your team right.”
UK’s mentor said Saturday that he has gotten letters from the fans who have suggested that he play more players.
Several years ago, when the Wildcat mentor had concerns about his squad, he decided to contact the legendary coach who captured 10 national titles while at UCLA and get a valuable advice from the Wizard of Westwood.
“In 2010 when I called Coach (John) Wooden about my team, he told me I play too many guys,” said Calipari. “(So) you need to play six or seven, maybe eight max if somebody is in foul trouble.”
On Johnson, Calipari commented, “He was behind Willie; how well was Willie playing? Not a whole lot of minutes there. Now Willie is not playing as well, now you go do your minutes and prove you should play more. Own your performance. And he did. I’m proud of him.”
Earlier in the season, Johnson hit 10 points and snatched seven rebounds in Kentucky’s victory over Eastern Michigan. The communications major also recorded eight points and eight rebounds in UK’s win over UT Arlington.
A projected second-round pick in a recent 2014 NBA mock draft, Johnson has a bright future and is expected to stay at UK for another year or two, helping the Wildcats continue their winning ways with his physical force.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime sports columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is currently a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.