At the 2015 NBA Draft, former Kentucky Wildcats Andrew Harrison and Dakari Johnson were drafted in the second round. Harrison was drafted by the Phoenix Suns with the 14th pick in the second round (subsequently traded to Memphis) and Johnson was drafted with the 18th pick in the second round by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Although it might appear to be a disappointment to be second round picks for two players that were high school high All-Americans, it’s a testament to how deep the 2014-15 Wildcats were that a total of six were chosen by NBA teams.
Harrison and Johnson have had to overcome the perception that a lot of former Wildcats, especially under head coach John Calipari, have had to deal with. Because of the depth of talent around them, it’s not easy to gauge how their individual talents will translate to the professional level. What we have seen, however, is that for a lot of Cats, they sacrifice so of their games for the team, they’re capable of a lot more than they showed in Lexington. And such is the case with both Andrew Harrison and Dakari Johnson.
One of the few highlights of the dismal 2013 season for UK fans was when the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron committed to join the 2014 Wildcats. Banners went up and shirts were printed with a now familiar catchphrase: Don’t Worry, the Twins are coming. The 2013-14 Wildcats were hyped as few college teams have ever been hyped and when the season didn’t go to plan, the critics came out en masse. The brunt of the criticism was directed toward the starting backcourt, particularly Andrew Harrison.
Harrison’s play, as most freshmen tend to be, was uneven. Very few high school experiences can prepare you for the big time atmosphere of Kentucky. Combined with being a “Calipari point guard” and the high preseason expectations, Andrew was almost doomed to disappoint. When you’re following John Wall, Brandon Knight, Marquis Teague and the fans are ready for another great point guard, there’s a tremendous amount of pressure. As the 2014 regular season came to an end, Coach Cal proclaimed to everyone that he would “tweak” the team to get them ready for the post season.
As Calipari tells it, he just told Andrew to go out and play. That, in essence, was the tweak. While the teak itself might be debatable, the results were not. In the Sweet 16 game vs. intrastate rival Louisville, Andrew lead a furious comeback to set the table for his brother Aaron’s last second heroics to help the Cats advance. While Aaron grabbed the headlines for his last second daggers against Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin (and rightfully so), the underreported aspect of the team’s turnaround was the steady play of point guard Andew Harrison.
When both Harrisons decided to return for their sophomore years, the expectations were raised for the 2015 Wildcats. This team would be deeper than previous Calipari UK teams and would have Final Four experience in the backcourt. For the early part of the season, Andrew looked like his old freshman self. He had a high number of turnovers and wasn’t shooting the ball particularly well. With freshman Tyler Ulis providing a spark with the second team, some media folks and folks within the Big Blue Nation wondered if Ulis should be staring. After a particularly dismal performance against Louisville, it looked like Calipari would make the switch, but he didn’t. Andrew was doing a lot of things that didn’t show up in the boxscore. In close games, he could get into the paint and either initiate contact for a foul, score a layup or pass to a teammate. In short order, he became the point guard the Cats needed to get to 38-1.
Dakari Johnson had the fortunate misfortune of playing with some really talented big men during his time in Lexington. Between Willie Cauley-Stein, Julius Randle, Karl-Anthony Towns, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress, there hasn’t been a lot of minutes to go around in the post. Despite that, Johnson made some huge improvements from his freshman and sophomore seasons. After filling in for an injured Cauley-Stein during the 2014 title game run, Johnson returned for his second season ready to help the Cats conquer the world.
With Calipari going to the platoon system for 2014-15, Dakari was part of the second unit or “white” platoon. Like his freshman season, Dakari made the most of his opportunity. He made huge improvements in his free throw shooting. And his footwork in the post, while not Hakeem the Dream level improved as well. And he showed himself to be an outstanding rebounder. During the July 4th holiday when the SEC Network was showing nothing but Kentucky games/highlights. I rewatched the Louisville game from December 2014. What I saw was Johnson handling business on the boards and being a defensive presence on the interior.
Even though he was only in Lexington for two seasons, Dakari Johnson improved a lot. As he heads into the NBA, he’s in a perfect situation in Oklahoma City. With star Kevin Durant returning from injury and Russell Westbrook ready to lead a potent, high octane offense, Johnson is going to be able to play into the rotation to backup starting center Serge Ibaka. Like former Wildcat big man, Nazr Mohammed, Dakari Johnson can be that steadying force in the post for the Thunder. He’s going to rebound. He’s going to play solid defense and, as an added bonus, he’s going to shoot a respectable percentage from the free throw line.
In Memphis, Andrew Harrison has the opportunity to backup starting point guard Mike Conley. Harrison has the size and court vision to run an NBA team. Harrison’s defense is underrated and he’s showed flashes of being an explosive playmaker during his run for the Grizzlies’ summer league team. Again, there are aspects of his game that we didn’t see at Kentucky that I think are going to serve him well in the NBA. And if you can survive the spotlight at Kentucky when you’re not playing well, there’s not a lot that will phase you on the professional level.
Both Andrew Harrison and Dakari Johnson have grown a lot during their time at the University of Kentucky. On and off the court, both are ready to make an impact for their respective NBA teams. With all the things they learned from Coach Cal and his staff, success, while not guaranteed, is completely possible for them at this next level. If Harrison and Johnson end up in the 8 to 9 man rotations, both will prove themselves to be the steals of the second round.