During the first two seasons of his college basketball career, Kansas University guard Elijah Johnson sat in the shadows and watched the Jayhawks rack up 68 victories in 74 games.
While averaging just 11 minutes per game during those two seasons, Johnson used the pine time to study players such as Sherron Collins, Marcus and Markieff Morris, Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson as they led the Jayhawks both on the stat sheet and in the huddle.
“I learned a lot from those guys,” the 6-foot-4 senior said during a recent interview with the Journal-World. “I always thought about how I would go about it when I looked at them in different situations. ... For those first two years, I watched, I watched, I watched, and now that I’m out there it’s just slow motion to me.”
Those days, with Collins serving as the undisputed leader during Johnson’s freshman season and Taylor gradually working his way into the same role over the course of the next two seasons, Johnson was merely a backup point guard and offered a different option off the bench. He did what he could to get reps, played when called upon and tried to keep track of the lessons in a mental scrap book.
Playing alongside Taylor as a junior allowed Johnson to flourish. He became a starter and the team’s third-leading scorer (10.2 points per game), averaged 32 minutes per game and had the freedom to fit into games as needed — no restrictions, no burdens. Basketball, the way Johnson played it, looked simple. And fun. Shoot, pass, score, rebound, defend. And it was fun, of course. The Jayhawks reached the national title game and Johnson, who had a fantastic NCAA Tournament in 2012, was a big part of the reason why.
But even as the fun and freedom led to new heights, Johnson admitted it took awhile to get used to his new role.
“I think that was probably the hardest adjustment I have had here,” he said of transitioning from point guard to combo guard. “Coach never told me not to play point guard but it just felt a little different.”
Now in his final season, Johnson once again has had to fight to adjust, this time moving back to the position he always considered to be most natural.
“In my opinion, I’ve always been a point guard,” Johnson said. “Ever since I was real young, I always have been able to rally people. It’s just been a part of my character. It’s just me, really.”
Ranked out of high school by Rivals.com as the fifth-best point-guard prospect in the nation, Johnson’s return to the point has been hard to evaluate. Early on, he looked to be in control, running the offense effortlessly, getting others involved on each possession and operating with the poise and confidence of a player who had been in the program for four seasons.
“Elijah has to become an extension of the coaching staff and of me,” said KU coach Bill Self at the beginning of Big 12 play. “And I think he’s done a pretty good job of doing that. He’s a bright kid and been around a lot and played in big games, so he gets it.”
At the same time, there were moments — stretches, even — when Johnson disappeared and looked nothing like the cold-blooded, confident gamer he was as a junior. During the down times, he was far less explosive and offensive-minded than he was during last season’s run to the title game. Johnson will be the first to tell you that his numbers aren’t what he expected or even what they should be. But it’s not numbers Johnson is worried about heading into Thursday’s 2 p.m., Big 12 tournament quarterfinal against either West Virginia or Texas Tech. It’s wins. And leadership. And as he tries to deliver both, he often goes back to the lessons he learned from Collins and Taylor during his first three years in Lawrence.
“Watching Sherron,” Johnson recalled, “the way he was just so focused at the end of the games; I would try to talk to him and he didn’t want to be bothered, he was just so focused on leading the team. I always kind of let moments like those linger in my head and I’m just trying to let them play out now.”
As his final season in Lawrence has neared its end, Johnson has traveled his rocky road with the confidence of one of those guys who walks barefoot across hot coals — one foot in front of the other, just keep going. He followed up the worst three-game stretch of his life with a 39-point outburst in a huge road victory at Iowa State. It was a highlight moment for Johnson and one of the best performances of all-time by a KU guard, according to Self.
“He was the best player in the country,” Self said following Johnson’s career night.
Johnson followed up the ISU outburst with back-to-back double-digit assist games in blowout victories over West Virginia and Texas Tech, both of which were crucial in delivering a ninth straight Big 12 Conference title to Lawrence.
Johnson’s current teammates have nothing but admiration for the resolve and toughness their leader has displayed this season.
“Especially in practice,” fellow senior Travis Releford said. “There’s times where he’s dead tired and he won’t come out of practice just because he wants to continue to push himself and continue to make the team better. I definitely see it.”
Asked if watching the adjustment from Johnson the scorer to Johnson the distributor had been strange, Releford dismissed the thought.
“That’s what people were worried about,” Releford said. “But he’s a point guard. He’s not supposed to look to score. He’s supposed to create opportunities for others to score. He’s done everything he’s been asked to do.”
Added red-shirt freshman Ben McLemore: “He means a lot to me. On and off the court, he’s like a big brother to me. He talks to me a lot, gives me advice about different things I need to work on and what I need to do. Watching him and learning from him is just awesome.”
For a coach who has had nothing but clear-cut leaders at Johnson’s position since arriving at KU, Self was honest when asked to think back on his preseason assessment of the next man up.
“I probably didn’t know (if he would),” said Self regarding Johnson’s ability to lead. “But I certainly expected (it). I think he’s still growing into it. But I think he’s done well. I think guys listen to him.”
Self continued: “It’s amazing to me: you can have a great leader that’s a big guy, you can have an unbelievable talker as a four man or a guy that everybody follows his lead as a three man, but still, if you were to ask any coach, ‘Who would you want to be your leader?’ everyone would say, ‘I want my quarterback or my point guard to be that guy.’”
Now that the Jayhawks (26-5 overall, 14-4 Big 12) have just two guaranteed games remaining in Johnson’s career, Self’s hoping and expecting that his point guard will take his game to another level.
“So much of Elijah’s criticism, in my perspective, has been (because) he hasn’t made shots,” Self said. “If you make shots and you’re not a true point guard, I think that’s something people can kind of get past. Tyshawn didn’t make shots. Tyshawn was 0-for-21 in the NCAA Tournament or whatever and everybody’s talking about how great he was because he put himself in the game. I think that’s what Elijah’s gotta do the rest of the season, make sure he impacts as many possessions as he possibly can.”
Now that the he’s the one saddled with the responsibility of navigating last year’s national runner-up through the 2013 postseason, Johnson does not plan to let anything change how he attacks his final crack at living up to the standard.
“I think when you’re here, you focus on your task,” Johnson said. “You’re not focused on what happened before you or what’s gonna happen after you; you’re just trying to focus on what you’re here to do. I have a job to do, and that’s what I’m doing.”