Dakari Johnson being traded to the Orlando Magic was a salary dump for the Oklahoma City Thunder. The whole Carmelo Anthony situation placed the Thunder over a barrel and skyrocketed their hilariously horrific cap room situation into the stratosphere. Johnson was just another piece in the organization trying to come back down to a more reasonable financial dilemma.
OKC sheds Johnson’s guaranteed $1.4M salary, with Purvis on non-guaranteed minimum for next season. Cash considerations is expected to go to Orlando too. https://t.co/xPVLpFdvzE
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) July 20, 2018
So now, instead of four former Kentucky players on the Thunder (Johnson, Noel, Patterson, Diallo), they’re down to three. But one man’s salary dump is another man’s treasure. Johnson will move to Orlando where he’ll join Magic newcomer Isaiah Briscoe. And just like that, another NBA team for Kentucky fans to follow was born.
The question for Johnson is going to be how he fits into the youthful culture surrounding an otherwise mediocre organization. He’s still young himself (won’t turn 23 until September) and up until he was traded, the Thunder appeared to have confidence in him as a potential asset to their future. The Thunder signed him to a fully guaranteed two-year deal before the start of last season but he played in only 161 total minutes. There were signs pointing to him becoming the backup center full-time for this coming season, but the addition of Nerlens Noel put a real dent in that theory.
The Thunder are desperate to regain control of their cap situation and Johnson was an easy piece to ship out.
In Orlando, Johnson joins an incredibly young frontcourt with an undeniable potential to become great. Mo Bamba out of Texas was the sixth pick for the Magic in the 2018 draft and they took Jonathan Isaac out of Florida State with the same pick in the 2017 draft. Both players are extremely long – Bamba and Isaac are listed at seven-foot and six-foot-ten, respectively – with skillsets that will set them up as defensive anchors who can defend the three, four, and five position. They can create an impenetrable wall of insane wingspans if they pan out properly and the Magic will give them all the playing time they need.
Johnson will join the two youngsters along with Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon as the Magic’s frontcourt rotation. Among the five, Johnson will have the least amount of credibility. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Magic tried to deal away Vucevic, but for now, he’s too good for them not to play him unless they decide to embrace a full-on rebuild and cut him out entirely in favor of the younger players. If that’s the case and the Magic do find a new home for Vucevic, then that leaves Johnson as the lone traditional big man.
Perhaps the Magic intend on using Johnson as their primary backup center and trading for him was a sign that Vucevic is on his way out (this is purely speculation). If so, Johnson fits in quite nicely with this Orlando team. They need a bruiser type big off the bench and Johnson brings that immediately (they do have Timofey Mozgov, but it’s hard to argue that he’ll deserve more minutes than Johnson on a rebuilding team). At seven-feet tall and 255 pounds, Johnson has seriously upgraded his body over the last couple seasons and when watching him during Summer League, he looked so much more agile than he was at Kentucky. The comparison is night and day. His speed bursts will shock you.
He has a solid general awareness regarding box outs and can be an average rebounder in the NBA. His range is limited, but he can score around the basket with a soft touch and his unexpected athleticism opens up cutting lanes for himself. He’s not going to be a high usage player by any means, especially in today’s NBA, but with rim running ability he can prove to be a serviceable threat as a roll man. The jury is still out on whether or not he can be a reliable interior defender.
In 10 G League games for the Thunder affiliated Oklahoma City Blue last season, Johnson averaged 23.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game while shooting 58.4 percent from the field. He averaged more offensive rebounds per game (5.3) than defensive rebounds (5.0). The G League is no NBA, but those stats suggest he needs a more challenging task.
The move for Johnson makes sense for the Magic. They’re acquiring young players in a rebuild and Johnson fits the mold. Depending on how the roster works its way out by the time the season begins, Johnson could see himself as a rotational big man with opportunities to make mistakes and few consequences in doing so. Being granted a long leash can be instrumental for a player’s development and Johnson has never seen extended time. In only five games did Johnson record at least 10 minutes for the Thunder last season. But in those five games, Johnson did boast a total plus/minus of +19.
The Magic aren’t going to be a team consistently featured on national television, but with Johnson and Briscoe now both in Orlando, there is the incentive to follow them. The entire season is going to be one long practice as developing these young players is going to be the number one priority. They’ll get better as the season goes along and it’ll be exciting to watch Johnson do the same.