In the heart of college basketball’s offseason, I met with UCF men’s basketball head coach Johnny Dawkins in his office Tuesday afternoon. During our 20-minute Q&A, we talked recruiting, the NBA Draft prospects of his former players and, yes, that incredible NCAA Tournament game versus Duke that Dawkins will probably never re-watch.
This transcript has been lightly edited.
Black and Gold Banneret: First off, tell me about your newest transfer recruit, former Texas A&M guard Brandon Mahan.
Johnny Dawkins: “He’s a shooter. We had seen him in years past when he was in the portal. We revisited that situation. We’re going to lose some guys, of course, next year, like Matt Milon, who’s a shooter, and Frank Bertz, who’s a shooter. So, I think it’s a great opportunity. I thought the timing was good to bring a guy like him in, an experienced guy, a shooter. He’s played at a high level, so I think he understands what we’re up against in our league. I thought it would be a great fit.”
BGB: It seems like this team is placing more emphasis on perimeter shooting. How much impact does the 3-point line moving back have on that approach?
JD: “That’s our style of play. I think the 3-point line will help spacing on the floor. The spacing will only get better. It’s a foot, so it’ll be an adjustment, but it’s not an overwhelming adjustment like going to the NBA line. I think percentages will go down a little, but I don’t think it’s going to be drastic. So, having guys to help space the floor where things aren’t as congested in your offense, things aren’t as congested just because of the way the defenses are playing, I think it benefits our style of play.”
BGB: After a successful season like the one you just had, describe what differences you have seen while recruiting from last year to this year?
JD: “Definitely more recognition. I thought we were trending in a good direction prior to the year, but definitely it’s helped. The exposure we’ve gotten, our brand has been so much more visible, so I think young people, they see it. There’s a recognition that they saw us competing at a high level on a big stage. I think it just gives us more credibility when we go out.”
BGB: Your speech to the team following the Duke defeat became a viral sensation and was aired on national TV networks. What kind of feedback have you received on that video? And secondly, what do you hope people it took away after viewing it?
JD: “As far as people viewing it, I think it was a positive response. I think they realize how we’re really trying to impact young people’s lives. It’s more than just winning. I think they saw the other side of it and how we’re still teaching and still helping our young people through losses. I think there was a healing process that went on after that game that everybody was exposed to around the world, seeing what happens in our locker room after something like that. I think they saw that we realized it was something bigger than just the game; it was about our young people and their well-being. I think it came across just how sincere everything was, and I think that’s something I take away from people that have mentioned it to me. They got a real positive feeling about our program based on, in that moment, this isn’t acting, this isn’t movies. This is real-life drama playing out right in front of everybody.
“I think how everybody responded in that locker room, not just myself but our players, how much they cared, how much it meant to them — I mean, you could hear how much it meant to them throughout the entire time I was speaking. That just says a lot about the investment that our guys had put in and the relationships that we had built. That moment could not have happened if there hadn’t been a lot of other moments leading up to that moment that we shared together, good and tough, like the one they were in. So they see that how much we care about our student-athletes. I think that came through really well, and how much our student-athletes cared about us and our program.
“It’s not like we have time to go and think about, ‘OK, what are we going to talk about?’ No. It’s just raw emotion right there, for the true thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, and teaching our young people how you should handle those things, because there’s a way you need to handle that. I think that’s what you heard throughout that speech.”
BGB: Moving to the NBA Draft, it appears Tacko Fall is the most likely UCF player to be drafted Thursday. Of course, there are questions about how well a man of his size can move in today’s smaller, quicker NBA game. How have you seen Fall’s mobility improve in your three years with him?
JD: “He’s really improved. He’s worked very hard. From day 1 when we got here, we tried to paint a picture, a vision of where we thought he could be, and he’s worked toward it the entire time. We talked about his lateral quickness, his quick-twitch muscles, his ability to change ends of the floor and how important that’s going to be for him to play not just for us but also for beyond.
“I always mention these guys: Alex (Parr), our strength and conditioning coach, and Jarrett (Schweim), our trainer. They were amazing in developing programs for him throughout the process where he could work in improving in those areas and also staying healthy in doing so. They did a great job of bringing him along, and he gets all the credit because he worked really hard to put himself in that position.”
BGB: So, how do you see Tacko fitting in at the next level?
JD: “He’s an NBA player. How it works out, we’ll see. On draft day, you never know what happens, but he’s an NBA player. I think he’s a gamechanger. He’s not a gamechanger in the likes of Kawhi Leonard or someone like that. You have to find ways to be creative coaching someone who is so different. I think it’s going to take a coach who thinks outside the box, how you can utilize what he does to help your team. If you try to fit that square peg into a round hole, he’s not ever going to fit in the modern NBA’s game. But if you can be creative and think the box, which there are a number of coaches up there who do that, I think you can find a way where he can really assist your team just in spot moments.
2019 @UCF_MBB #NBADraft Profile: Tacko Fall— Black & Gold Banneret (@UCF_Banneret) June 18, 2019
Tacko is a super-big man in a quick man’s game. Can he adapt to the changing sport and carve a niche for himself at the next level? #UCF #BuiltByUCFhttps://t.co/PkCyVR8Zxe
“He’s not going to play 30-something minutes a night for you, but when he is in there, he can change the game. He can change the flow of a game. He can change the momentum of a game. How do I know? Because I coached him for three years and watched him do it. I think if you think outside the box as I’m saying, there are opportunities to put that young man in games and do some things, strategy-wise, defensively and offensively, that all of a sudden, you’re in a game. That game, you may be flat in that night; he can help change the outcome because now your team goes on a 13-0, 14-0 run because the other team is having to adjust to just who he is, his stature on the court. You could use zone with him some.”
*At this point, we started talking about how crazy it was to see Raptors head coach Nick Nurse break out a box-and-1 defense in the NBA Finals to shut down Stephen Curry. We got back on track after a couple of minutes ...
BGB: After the Duke game, Aubrey Dawkins was widely discussed as a second-round draft pick. But he seems to have lost a lot of helium since then. If Aubrey was 21, not 24, are we even talking about him possibly not being drafted?
JD: “No, no. They can come up with all kinds of rational and reasons, but his age is the one thing. I think everyone likes the 18-to-20-year-olds and they like potential. That’s just the way the game has gone; everyone drafts on potential and so guys that are more proven and solid, players that have that kind of track record are not as valued as much, unfortunately. I feel bad for him because in his situation, there’s nothing he coud do. He had to sit out a year to play for his dad, which is unfortunate (said with full sarcasm). Then you get hurt the following year, which compounds it. Now, you miss two years of your life, so instead of being 21, 22 coming out, you’re 23, 24 coming out, and they are going to view you differently because of that, unfortunately.
The 2019 NBA Draft is less than a week away, and we’ve got our first @UCF_MBB 2019 #NBADraft Profile!— Black & Gold Banneret (@UCF_Banneret) June 15, 2019
We start with the guy who owned the floor the last time we saw him out there: Aubrey Dawkins #UCF https://t.co/nZt4FgxyaK
“But my thing is, like Tacko, the reason I know he would be a good player in the NBA is because he’s already a good player now. I don’t have to do all his guesswork and projecting of, ‘Well, in a few more years, he could be this good because he’s 18 now.’ Yes and no. He could get hurt. He may lose his hunger to develop properly. He may not be able to develop anymore than where he is. There’s no exact science that’s saying because you’re 18 to 20 that means you’re automatically going to pass a guy who’s older, who’s already better than you. You may never catch him. It’s not like [Aubrey] didn’t work all of his life to get to where he is, to become the player he is. I feel sad about that because, to me, when you try to project players, the reason I know that he’ll be good there is he’s already good.”
BGB: Will you and Aubrey be watching the draft together?
JD: “He’ll probably come by the house. We probably will watch it together. I haven’t actually sat down with him because he’s been running all over the place, as you could imagine recently. Now that he’s about slowing down, I’ll get him probably today and just say we’ll probably have a good little meal at the house and just sit down and watch the draft.”
BGB: That day versus Duke, Aubrey was seen by many, including Duke HC Mike Krzyzewski, as the best player on the court. Have you two had a chance to talk about that game and his performance?
“We really haven’t reflected on it to that level. I mean, we’ve talked about the game, and I really was proud of how he approached it. A lot of times, that moment can be too big for anybody. Just playing a team like a Duke or those caliber of teams, sometimes that moment can be too big for players and they may not perform to the level they need to. In his case, he performed at the highest level. I told him I was just very proud of him for that because by doing that, that allowed us to really perform, team-wise, at a high level to be able to match what they were doing.
“And that’s pretty much all I said to him. I hadn’t rewatched the game.”
BGB: Oh, you should though. It is such a great game.
JD: “Yeah, for you. (laughs) There’s two games I’ve never watched: That one and the championship game I played in ‘86. Those are the two games I have yet to ever watch over again. And I watch a lot of tape, as you can imagine.
“So, I thought that in coaching [Aubrey] and raising him, he always has seemed to play his best in those moments. And if you watched the season, you saw that again this year. Not just that game, but we were on the road and got to win a game in Temple. People say the best game he played was Duke, but I’m like, just two weeks ago before that, he had 36 versus Temple coming off an injury. So, I’ve seen him do that before.
“On the road at UConn or on the road at Missouri. A big shot at Houston. You look at his road numbers -- at home, we were a very good team, so at home, all of our guys are going to play fairly well -- but on the road, SMU, I’m running through games in my head. The only game I think on the road was Memphis where he didn’t play like he’s played throughout all the other games on the road. That was the only one. At Wichita State, he was terrific. We didn’t win them all, but he stepped up and played at a real high level in every one of those games.”
BGB: One last thing about Aubrey. You said numerous times that coaching him this past season ended up being better than you expected. How so?
JD: “It wasn’t even his play; it was his relationship with his teammates. That’s what I was talking about. Because you know how it is: Here’s your son playing for you, so in that locker room, for most players, that’s awkward. First of all, that’s your sanctuary. That’s your home. So just the normal chatter that you have in a locker room about the coaches, about whatever is going on in the world, and here you are with someone that’s connected with the coaches right there with you all the time. But I knew he was a good guy. He’s a great teammate. That’s what I saw from him.
“I could tell by just the way the players responded to him. Like at the [team banquet after the seawson], we were talking about each player, and we would say certain things about him. Just the way the guys were nodding their heads like, ‘Absolutely, you’re right.’ There was a certain level of respect he had to earn from being a coach’s son in the locker room. That’s the thing to me that I was most pleased with. His play, I knew he was a good player. Teammate-wise, would he be accepted by his teammates or would that always be an awkward experience his whole way through? And it was seamless. That’s what made it such a pleasant experience for me and even a better one than I had expected because of their acceptance of him and his relationship with them.”
BGB: Why should NBA franchises take a shot on B.J. Taylor?
JD: “You know what you’re getting. You’re getting an experienced player, a proven winner. He’s won his entire career here, he’s had a lot of success. I love his toughness. Is he good enough? I think he is, in the right situation. Look at (Fred) VanVleet. It’s just finding the right fit. Someone that believes in you and then you going out there and playing the way that we know he’s capable of playing. He just needs the right opportunity and if he has the right opportunity, he’s good enough. It’s that simple.”
BGB: What about Chad Brown?
JD: “How can you go wrong with a guy who is going to be the best teammate that you could ever have? We have some really good players and teammates, and Chad is right at the top of the list as far as how good of a human being he is, how good of a teammate he is. You want that type of energy. Every day he comes, he brings energy to every practice, he’s talking, he’s leading. He just brings so much to an organization besides his ability to rebound and defend and score around the basket. He brings so many other intangibles to the game. Players like that, they are really good team players.”
BGB: And lastly, Dayon Griffin, who recently worked out for the Orlando Magic.
JD: “A professional player. He’s a capable 3-point shooter. He has really good range -- definitely has NBA range. And he’s a really good defender. He was one of our best perimeter defenders as well. So, a two-way player who can defend but also knock down open shots. That’s who he is.
“I think all those guys will be professional players. Now, we’ve just got to find out where they’re going to land, whether it’s in the NBA, the G League, if it’s over in Europe. But all of them are all professional players. I don’t see them not having professional careers.”
BGB: How often do these players reach out to you to talk about the NBA and this pre-draft process?
JD: “I’ve spoken to all of our guys, of course, throughout this process. I spoke to Dayon last Thursday or Friday. I spoke to B.J. right before that. I just spoke with Tacko yesterday. And of course I hadn’t seen Aubrey, but I talked to him the day before yesterday. I’m in pretty much regular contact with them. And not so much about what I did in the NBA, but just making sure that they’re ready. That their minds are right, that they understand how to approach the workouts, how to approach this opportunity, because they all are running a different race right now.
“They all just need to run their race right now and, ‘Hey, this is the lane I’m in and this is how I have to run it based on where I am.’ Some are getting more opportunities to try out for NBA teams, some less. Some are NBA workouts, but they are substitutions for guys who can’t really go or something. Then they come in and play for them, and then G League coaches maybe work them out at the end of that. That’s where you see Chad and Dayon, in that type of situation. That’s a great opportunity, too, because you’re still auditioning. You’re still in front of people. You’re still getting to show who you are. And actually, you are there consistently, so a team is able to take a really good look at you and see where you are and see if there’s a need for you in their system.”
BGB: What will your reaction be Thursday night if a UCF player is indeed drafted?
JD: “I’m already proud of our guys and the things they accomplished through their careers here. I’ll just be really happy for them because I know that’s a dream of all of theirs. With the seniors that are coming out, this is the next step for them, and a step I think they’ve been all dreaming about for a long time, and now it’s kind of right there. They have to go in there and make it happen, like they did in their college career. They have to do the same thing at the next level.”