Cancer Research Classic: Dakari Johnson is just happy to be back on the court

WHEELING, W.Va. – It’s not that Dakari Johnson feels as if he’s arrived or that he’s accomplished all of his goals on the hardwood. There are no plans to ride off into the sunset reflecting on his achievements anytime soon.

“Oh no, I’m far from content,” said Johnson, a center at Montverde (Montverde, Fla.).

Still, try as he may, sometimes it’s hard to shake the urge to simply be happy running up and down the court with his teammates again.

It’s relative.

Johnson had to sit out all of last season due to transfer rules.

“I played for coach (Kevin) Boyle when he was the coach at St. Patrick (Elizabeth, N.J.) back in 2011,” Johnson said. “I came with him to Montverde and the rules said I couldn’t play my first year. That was so hard because I love this game. Now that I have ball back, I’m going harder on teams than I’ve ever gone before.”

Next up is Simeon (Chicago), ranked No. 9 in the Super 25, tonight at 6 p.m. (ESPN2) in the Cancer Research Classic at Wheeling Jesuit in Wheeling, W.Va. The Eagles check in at No. 2 in the Super 25.

MORE: Super 25 Rankings

“Having Dakari has been great for us,” Boyle said. “He just gives us another element that we didn’t have last season. He’s worked really hard and it’s paid off.”

Johnson’s first order of business once he learned that he’d have a year away from organized hoops was to get into better shape. At 6-foot-11, 280 pounds, the phrase “big man” was taking on a whole new meaning for Johnson.

“My weight was slowing me down for sure,” Johnson said. “I was still playing well, but I just kept on thinking about how much better I could be if I dropped some weight. So that’s what I did.”

Johnson popped in the workout DVD “Insanity” and dropped 20 pounds.

“That thing is intense,” Johnson said. “I think just doing something that was a little different helped me a lot. I’m in a lot better shape now and I feel like my agility and everything is better. That made me an even more complete player.”

Johnson’s development last year contributed heavily to his decision to reclassify from 2014 to 2013 in early November.

“I just felt like I was ready,” Johnson said. “I’m pretty confident in my abilities and I felt like I would be able to contribute in college next season.”

If this season is any indication, Kentucky, Syracuse or Georgetown, which make up Johnson’s final list, will be in for a treat.

Johnson will make his college announcement live at halftime of the Gonzaga (Washington, D.C.) vs. Salesian (Richmond, Calif.) game tonight at 8 p.m. ET on ESPNU.

“I’m definitely looking at what players would be coming in with me because my goal is to win a national championship,” Johnson said. “I want to win one in high school, college and, God-willing, in the NBA one day. I want to go where I’ve got the best chance to accomplish that.”

Johnson, who is ranked No. 12 in the ESPN 100, is averaging 16 points and 14 rebounds a game despite playing in a starting lineup that includes four other Division I prospects.

“I’m a lot happier now that I’ve got basketball back,” Johnson said.

That’s news to Johnson’s teammate Kasey Hill, who insists that Johnson carried the same “happy and supportive” disposition from last year into this year.

MORE: Dakari Johnson ALL-USA Watch

“If he was ever down, I never knew,” said Hill, a senior point guard who is signed to Florida. “That’s just how he is. He’s a great teammate. I would assume sometimes that he was down just because we all love this game, but, trust me, you could never tell.”

When asked what game was the toughest to watch last season, Johnson matter-of-factly said, “Findlay.”

“The championship game in the NHSI,” he said. “That was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I felt so helpless.”

Last April, the Eagles blew an 18-point lead in the second half of the National High School Invitational championship and fell to Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.), 86-83, in overtime.

The Pilots’ All-USA frontcourt tandem of Brandon Ashley, now a freshman at Arizona, and Anthony Bennett, now a freshman at UNLV, combined for 44 points in the win.

“I just know that if I’d played things would’ve been different,” Johnson said. “I think about that game sometimes and I love playing against great players like those guys so I just know that things would’ve gone different. It’s hard to watch your team ball in the national title game and you’re powerless to help them. It’s motivated me though.”

This season, Johnson has turned in his best performances against the country’s most elite players and teams. He posted 11 points and 17 rebounds in a win over Whitney Young (Chicago) center Jahlil Okafor, who is ranked No. 2 in the ESPN 60, and posted 12 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Eagles to the City of Palms Classic title over Lone Peak (Highland, Utah) and its trio of talented BYU recruits.

“I play better against better teams and players,” Johnson said. “It’s weird. You would think I’d just dominate lesser opponents, but when you’re just blowing a team out it’s not challenging. I love a challenge so I’m excited about this game against Simeon.”

The Wolverines feature senior forward Jabari Parker, a Duke commit who Sports Illustrated dubbed the best high school basketball player since LeBron James.

MORE: Jabari Parker picks Duke

“I love that we’re playing against Jabari,” Johnson said. “Playing against other guys with big reputations is so much fun for me. It’s like that for all of my teammates too. We’ll be ready to come out and get the W. I might be happy to be back playing, but I’m even happier when we’re winning.”

Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter @JayJayUSATODAY.
Cancer Research Classic: Dakari Johnson is just happy to be back on the court
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