One of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari’s toughest jobs every year is trying to find a rotation that gives enough minutes to all of the talented players on his ever-loaded rosters. This season, with six McDonald's All-Americans in the same freshman class, he's got an even tougher juggling act than usual, especially in a frontcourt that also includes returning standouts Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress.
The player who looks to be getting the short end of that stick in the early going is freshman center Dakari Johnson. The massive 7-footer has been productive off the UK bench, but he's getting on the floor for just 11.9 minutes a night.
Entering the year, there were concerns about whether Johnson's 265-pound bulk would limit his endurance or his ability to keep up with the fast break-loving Wildcats. Both questions are still open for debate, but Johnson has definitely shown that he has contributions to make on this deep team.
For one thing, he's been a tremendous force as a rebounder, pulling in 4.3 boards per game despite his lack of playing time. If he kept that up over the 30 minutes that many 'Cats starters are getting, he’d be in a virtual tie with Julius Randle for the team lead.
Even more importantly, Johnson brings a skill set to the table that neither Cauley-Stein nor freshman Marcus Lee (technically the starter, but only so he can win the opening tip) can provide. The Wildcats' bulkiest center is also the most skillful interior scorer of the trio, able to score not only on putbacks and dunks but also off the catch in the low post.
The value of that capability shouldn't be undersold for a team that has a gauntlet of tough SEC defenses lurking on its schedule. When Randle rests, Johnson can step in as the anchor of the 'Cats' half-court offense, an area that has been far from easy for Kentucky to navigate.
In addition, Johnson's shooting touch makes him singularly well-suited to punishing opponents who send their center to double-team on Randle. The Wildcats' top scorer has very good passing instincts, and playing him together with Johnson a bit more frequently would pay dividends on offense.
Without question, Johnson is a downgrade from Cauley-Stein defensively, but his rebounding and ability to alter shots—especially from smaller drivers—help make up for his lack of blocks. Even in the worst case, he can provide another five fouls for the defense to play with (as he showed against physical Michigan State).
Johnson has slowly been increasing his minutes at Lee's expense, and Calipari would be wise to continue that process. Lee's best assets—transition dunks and shot-blocking—are areas where Kentucky already excels, so he's less crucial as a reserve than Johnson and his scoring efficiency.
Cauley-Stein has dominated defensively, and there's no reason to expect that Johnson will come close to challenging for the starter's minutes that the sophomore is playing. However, even another five minutes a night from Johnson would help keep everyone else's legs fresher and make the Wildcats attack flow a little better in the process.