RAHWAY, N.J. – Midway through the fourth quarter of St. Patrick’s North Non-Public B semifinal win over Gill St. Bernard’s on Sunday, 6-foot-10, 240-pound Dakari Johnson made a steal at midcourt, gathered himself and took several long strides toward the basket for a layup.
The play symbolized all that is unique about Johnson. Just a freshman, he possesses great basketball instincts along with quick hands, nimble feet and an agility that belies his behemoth size.
“That felt good,” Johnson said afterward with a smile. “I mean, at least I had the footwork to do that, so that felt good.”
As unbeaten St. Patrick (26-0) prepares to face undefeated St. Anthony (29-0) in the Non-Public B final Wednesday night at Rutgers — otherwise dubbed the unofficial national championship game — Johnson will be one of the most watched players in the game.
He has already received interest from elite college programs such as Kentucky, Georgetown, Syracuse and others.
“Oh, I think he’s a pro,” said Kentucky-bound senior Michael Gilchrist, who is considered a future pro himself by many who know the game. “I really think he’s a pro in the future. He’s what, 6-9? All muscle. That’s a big boy in practice, I’ll tell you that. I gotta guard him, too, so man.
“He’s smart on the court and off the court.”
New York recruiting expert Tom Konchalski says it is too early to deem Johnson a future pro.
“Let’s not skip steps,” he said. “Put one foot in front of the other. That’s how you get from Point A to Point B.”
Still, asked to assess Johnson’s potential, Konchalski said, “Enormous.”
“First of all, he has a Big East body right now,” he added. “Secondly, he has very soft hands and he has a soft touch from the free throw line. He plays within himself. He’s come up in big games and has been a critical factor for them as a freshman.
“He makes free throws, and with a body like that and that kind of size he’s going to make a living at the free throw line.”
Johnson’s mother, Makini Campbell, an English teacher at St. Patrick, stands 6-foot-5. His father, Thomas Johnson, is 6-10.
Dakari was born in Brooklyn. His name is derived from the Swahili word for happiness, dakarai.
Dakari, 15, is now bigger than Shaquille O’Neal was at that age, and his mother said he projects to be 7 feet or taller.
Campbell played ball at Long Island University, and her brother, Kojo Black, played for Stony Brook.
Johnson first played organized basketball at the age of 8 at the famed Gauchos Gym.
“He’s coming from a family of sports, significantly basketball,” Campbell said. “So I did get him started.”
When Johnson was 11 or 12, he moved with his mother to Lexington, Ky., for “a change of pace,” his mother said.
But they soon returned to the Northeast as his mother sought work.
“Unfortunately, what brought me back up here was unemployment and the economy,” she said. “I moved back home, close to the family.”
Once she returned to Newark, Campbell said she began searching for high schools for her son.
Campbell said one of the reasons she selected St. Patrick was talented older players like Gilchrist, Western Kentucky signee Derrick Gordon and uncommitted senior guard Chris Martin on the team to mentor him.
“He had a lot of options, but that was one of the things that I looked at closely was, who else was on the team,” Campbell said. “Making sure that that pressure wasn’t going to fall on him and he had an opportunity to make some mistakes.”
Campbell said “the tutelage of Coach [Kevin] Boyle” was also a key factor in her decision.
“Wonderful coach, wonderful coach,” she said.
St. Patrick principal said Joe Picaro said the school’s academic reputation also “helped.”
A month and a half into the school year, George Meier, an English teacher at St. Patrick, left the school to go to Chicago when his father passed away, Picaro said.
At that point, the school hired Campbell to take his place.
“We had an opening,” Picaro said. “She’s certified in English and guidance, so we certainly got a big steal.”
Picaro is aware that people may criticize the school for giving Johnson’s mother a job.
“Nobody would say that to me anyway,” he said. “You know how the rumor mill is. It’s always behind your back.”
But Picaro emphasized that Johnson already was enrolled at the school when his mother was hired.
“She had no job; luckily for us so we were able to get her,” Picaro said with a laugh. “And she’s doing a great job. The kids don’t like her because she’s tough.”
On the court, several people, including Campbell, have referred to Johnson as “special” because of his talents.
“Dakari’s a special player, he’s gonna be real special,” Martin said. “He works hard. He’s just going to continue to get better.”
Johnson said when he works out, he tries to improve various parts of his game, even those normally attributed to guards.
“When I work out, I just don’t do post moves,” he said. “I do my overall game, which is jump shots, a little dribbling, and I just try to ad lib during the game.”
Both Boyle and Picaro compared Johnson to former St. Patrick standout Derrick Caracter, who overcame a troubled high school career to be drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers.
Still, Picaro said, “not even Derrick Caracter” was as agile as Johnson as a freshman. “And Derrick Caracter was certainly very agile.”
What’s more, Johnson isn’t getting the star treatment from officials — yet.
“Over the course of the season he gets called for little ticky-tack fouls because of his big size,” Picaro said. “You know how it is, if a guy’s a star, they treat him differently. They don’t want to foul him out, so they get the benefit of the doubt. Now it’s the opposite. They never get the benefit of the doubt.”
Still, because of his tremendous potential, Johnson is already being courted by college coaches. He has taken unofficial visits to Xavier and Georgetown and attended several Seton Hall games.
Kentucky coach John Calipari sat courtside for a recent game at Kean University.
“My mom says just stay humble and just take one step at a time with the college process,” Johnson said.
Said his mother: “We don’t put too much attention on that. We want him to enjoy high school and there’s time for that. There’s time for that.
“It keeps him motivated. It keeps him motivated to stay in his books and also to get better on the floor. We can use that for something, and that’s what we use it for, to keep him motivated.”
In the meantime, Campbell said her son was invited this summer to try out with USA Basketball for the team that will compete in the 2011 FIBA Americas U16 Championship for Men in Leon, Mexico.
Then Johnson will return to St. Patrick as a sophomore on a team that will be without Gilchrist and the other seniors.
Boyle said he expects both Johnson and 6-9 sophomore Austin Colbert to be “sensational next year.”
“We don’t want to take a step back,” Johnson said. “We want to take a step forward. We’re going to miss those guys but I think we’re going to be good next year.”