Close shots partly to blame for Elijah Johnson's offensive struggles


Kansas guard Elijah Johnson is defended by Texas players Cameron Ridley, left, and Julien Lewis during the first half on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013 at Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Texas.

Kansas guard Elijah Johnson is defended by Texas players Cameron Ridley, left, and Julien Lewis during the first half on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013 at Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Texas. by Nick Krug

This has been a tough season for Kansas senior guard Elijah Johnson, who is trying to make the transition from off-guard a year ago to full-time point guard this season. Not helping him is the fact that he still appears to be hampered by a knee injury (though to his credit, he didn't use it as an excuse Monday and even described his knee as "100 percent.").

For most of the season, Johnson has held back the Jayhawks offense. The offensive rating statistic (using a long but trusted formula) tells us how many points a player produces per 100 possessions on his own. This number is used with usage percentage, which tells what percentage of a team's possessions a player ends (average is 20 percent).

The following chart shows the top six KU players' offensive ratings compared to their usage percentages. Players toward the right are the most efficient, while the players toward the top are taking the biggest offensive roles for KU.

KU efficiency

KU efficiency by Jesse Newell

The graph shows that Johnson has been KU's most inefficient player by a wide margin. Compounding the problem is that he has the second-highest usage percentage, meaning lots of KU's possessions are ending in the hands of its worst offensive player.

Johnson's numbers also don't compare well to other starting point guards under KU coach Bill Self*.

* — I picked Sherron Collins as KU's point guard in 2009-10 over Tyshawn Taylor, though you could make an argument either way.

Point guard efficiency

Point guard efficiency by Jesse Newell

In the last nine seasons, no starting point guard at KU has produced less than a point per possession. Right now, Johnson is at 0.94 PPP.

So what issues is Johnson having offensively? Let's start by looking at his shooting breakdown, with information coming from

Elijah Johnson shot breakdown

Elijah Johnson shot breakdown by Jesse Newell

Yes, Johnson is shooting a few more two-point jumpers this year, which will bring down his efficiency some. And while shooting fewer three-pointers, his accuracy from long range is still below the NCAA average.

But the glaring number here is Johnson's field-goal percentage on close shots. While shooting a similar percentage of dunks, tipins and layups, Johnson's shooting percentage is down 19 percentage points from a year ago.

What's the reason for this?

It could go back to the position he's playing. Because he's the point guard and not a shooting guard, he's on the delivering end of fast breaks instead of the receiving end.

Here's a comparison of the close shots Johnson has been assisted on this season compared to last.

Close shots assisted.

Close shots assisted. by Jesse Newell

Johnson doesn't appear to be getting many of the easy baskets he did last year because of his change in roles. Because most assisted baskets come without a dribble, this might also hint that Johnson is more comfortable scoring without putting the ball on the floor.

The switch to point guard also has sapped another part of Johnson's offensive game from a year ago: alley-oops.

According to the KU Athletics game notes, Johnson had 15 dunks in 2011-12. This year, he has three.

Self likes to talk about how players get shooting confidence by making easy shots, and Johnson hasn't had many chances for those as the primary ballhandler. We did see the Jayhawks try to get Johnson an alley-oop on the first possession against Oklahoma State, but Jeff Withey's pass was knocked away for a turnover.

There might be another reason for Johnson struggling on close shots: He might be trying to avoid contact.

Johnson was just 2-for-6 on layup and dunk tries against OSU, and in this video and also this one, he appears to be shying away from contact* as he gets to the rim while also worrying too much about shot-blockers.

Compare those clips to the first 1 1/2 minutes of this video, which shows Johnson's confident drives from the NCAA Tournament last year.

* — I also can't help but think of the Oregon State game, when Johnson went aggressively to the basket before getting fouled and knocked on his tailbone. A play like that could (for good reason) make someone less likely to be aggressive at the rim.

Johnson's efficiency also has been negatively affected by turnovers.

We can see this best if we look at his turnover rate, which measures what percentage of his ended possessions that are used on turnovers.

Johnson appears to especially be struggling with turnovers since his switch back to point guard. Let's compare his turnover rate numbers to those of Tyshawn Taylor, who also was widely criticized for giving the ball away too often.

Turnover rates

Turnover rates by Jesse Newell

Taylor — a more gifted ballhandler — had his turnover numbers bounce up and then down again during his four-year career, with his second-best turnover rate coming in his final year.

Johnson, meanwhile, has struggled most during his freshman and senior seasons — the two years when he's been asked to play primarily on the ball instead of off it*.

* — Keep in mind we're dealing with a small sample size his freshman year, when he played just 151 minutes.

Playing off the ball last year, and serving primarily as a spot-up shooter, Johnson had the lowest turnover rate of his career.

This year, though, his mind-set has changed as point guard. You can see it in the final quote of this Kansas City Star story, when Johnson says, " ... as a point guard, you have to make sure that all five people are in order." Or in this quote from Bleacher Report, when he says, "I base my stats on how everybody else plays."

Johnson has made assists his primary focus this season. And while that sounds like the right thing for a senior leader to do, that way of playing seems to bring out the worst with his turnovers.

For comparison, here's a look at Taylor's assist rate (the percentage of his teammates' assists he contributes while he's on the floor) compared to his turnover percentage over his four-year career.

Taylor comparison

Taylor comparison by Jesse Newell

The two numbers don't appear to be related, as Taylor was able to raise his assist total without affecting his turnovers.

That has been more difficult for Johnson.

Johnson comparison

Johnson comparison by Jesse Newell

Johnson's assist rate has spiked this year (he's 136th nationally), but it has come at a steep price, as his turnover rate has soared as well.

Unfortunately for KU, there doesn't appear to be an easy solution.

Tharpe's efficiency numbers are better than Johnson's, but not by a lot. Playing Tharpe more often would result in better offense for KU now, but it also could result in dwindling confidence for Johnson, who was one of KU's best two players (along with Withey) during last year's run to the national championship game.

Self also could put Tharpe in at the 1 and move Johnson back to his natural position at the 2, but that would mean he would have to take one of his two best players off the floor (Ben McLemore or Travis Releford) or he'd have to play Releford out of position at the 4. Doing that would mean Releford — a talented on-ball defender — would have to guard a big man inside.

Because McLemore and Releford are not good ballhandlers — and because KU's ceiling remains highest with Johnson on the floor — Self appears to be ready to stick Johnson back in there with the hope he turns things around.

If he does, it'll most likely be because he increases his efficiency on close shots or limits his turnovers to the point that he once again becomes a valuable player for KU.


kusayzone 9 years, 9 months ago

Nice stats, So how does it get fixed?

Andy Godwin 9 years, 9 months ago

It doesn't. Self will live or die with EJ and at this stage of his career and season, nothing will improve dramatically. What some of the stats suggest is that Releford needs to be in the flow more on offense and should get more shot opportunities than EJ.

archercc 9 years, 9 months ago

While Id like to see EJ take fewer shots (and fewer bad ones, which he takes too many of as a senior) but one reason Releford is so efficient is because he doesn't take a lot of shots. He is very picky about when the throws the ball up.

adamjhwkfan 9 years, 9 months ago

We know he can finish, we know he can pass. We've seen it. He needs to get whatever it is out of his head, take it strong to the basket, finish, or make strong passes. That's it. It's not rocket science.

Ron Franklin 9 years, 9 months ago

"Self also could put Tharpe in at the 1 and move Johnson back to his natural position at the 2, but that would mean he would have to take one of his two best players off the floor (Ben McLemore or Travis Releford) or he'd have to play Releford out of position at the 4. Doing that would mean Releford — a talented on-ball defender — would have to guard a big man inside."

This is the line up that I want to see. And it would be at the expense of Kevin Young, not McLemore or Releford. Kevin is a 6th man who brings great energy off the bench and he is very opportunistic and a fabulous offensive rebounder. But right now, that formula just isn't working. It worked until people figured out Youngs niche-and weaknesses. Then all off the sudden the offense went stale.

I would love to see the opposing teams Natural 4 chase Releford around for a Matchup Advantage. Having Elijah & McLemore off the ball at the 2&3 would likely create at least one more MUA.

I"m not worried about Trav defending a 4 in the post, because we have the best interior defender 5 man in the country in Jeff Withey. If there were a talented 5 that could shoot the 3 and draw Withey out, that might be problematic, but those types of players are not as common. Plus, we have seen Trav defend one of the best 3/4 guys in the country and succeed; Deshaun Thomas. He's held his own against that guy multiple times now.

Based on what I can tell from the team this year, the above line up would produce the best defensive team as well as the best offensive team. But Coach is seeing something different. He's working a different angle, I suppose. I can respect that.

Kye Clark 9 years, 9 months ago

HEM has long been a proponent of playing small with Releford at the 4. My response to that line-up is this: by taking Releford and putting him at the 4, you are asking him to guard in the post, and thus have neutralized (or worse, made a liability out of) your best perimeter defender. And you've done this while getting Tharpe in the game, who is our worst perimeter defender. So it's not an issue of whether Travis CAN defend the post. He can, and like you said we have Withey in there to help. It's an issue of subtracting his perimeter defense, which would be devasting.

Going small and playing that line-up is only a net gain, in my opinion, when the other team has the "stretch" 4, or 3/4 guys like Deshaun Thomas, who naturally plays on the perimeter.

I'm a fan of getting Tharpe on the floor more, but it should be at the expense of EJ's minutes, not Kevin's. As Jesse has so brilliantly illustrated, Kevin is far out-performing EJ on the offensive end.

texashawk10 9 years, 9 months ago

Is it worth it to sacrifice some defense to get the offense going? There is no right or wrong answer, but one's opinion on that matter does determine whether someone thinks playing Releford playing some more 4 with Naadir running point is a good idea. I personally think it is and have though so for about a month ever since the Temple game. I know there are those that believe the current line up is KU's best option and there are valid arguments both ways.

The current line up with EJ, McLemore, Releford, Young, and Withey is an elite defense most of the time and has gotten KU to a 19-2 (7-1) record so far this season. The down side to this line up is that this is the line up that has only scored 70+ points twice in the past month (9 games).

A primary line up of Tharpe, EJ, McLemore, Releford, and Withey does appear to be a much better offensive line up. Obviously this is all speculation, but this is a line up that would appear to be much more suited to running the high-low with Releford and Withey because Releford is a threat to make a 3 if left unguarded at the top of the key which gives Withey more space. This line up in general would also appear to be much better at creating opportunities for Withey as he would have more 1 on 1 opportunities and if teams still double team him, them there should be a capable 3 point shooter open behind the 3 point line which isn't a bad situation to be in either. Obviously the defense would suffer because Tharpe is not near the perimeter defender that Releford is. With Withey on the floor though, this isn't as big a deal as it would be with other teams and this is why I think KU can get away with Releford playing the 4 and Tharpe and EJ on the floor at the same time.

Jack Wilson 9 years, 9 months ago

I have been a proponent of playing small for stretches, not all the time. Stretches.

But to address ict's points, what about MU last season? Is Kim English a better post defender than Releford? I doubt it. MU did not lose to Norfolk, nor to KU, because of playing small. Indeed, MU's great strength was being a matchup nightmare for conventional teams. But ict's point is right .. our overall defense would be weakened. It might be robbing Peter to pay Paul. But situationally, Self could manage this to the team's advantage. He's already done it some and did it with Mario Little.

But I think the answer hear is what I've suggested .. just for stretches. It would allow EJ to play the 2 more often.

I would suggest that KY would likely not outperform EJ on the offensive end if EJ were playing the 2. On the other hand, I can't guarantee that. It's a bit apples to oranges based on position, regardless of efficiency ratings, etc.

Stretches of playing small would be a reasonable tweak, I think. And heck, maybe we could play AW3 at that high post a bit, too.

Kent Noble 9 years, 9 months ago

Lets see what EJ does tonight. If his performance is anything like it was Saturday, It's straight and simple. Bill hands the ball to Nadir and gives him a chance. I don't think bringing Kevin Young off the bench is what Bill needs right now. Kevin brings to much energy at the beginning of the game and we need that right now. Transitioning to point gaurd is tough, but EJ just needs to figure it out. There is really no where else to go with EJ. McLemore and Releford are playing to well to set either one of them. We could go small and bring Kevin off the bench, maybe Bill should try that. No matter what Bill does it all boils down to turnovers. They all have a problem with turning the ball over, it's not just EJ it's the whole team!

Jonathan Allison 9 years, 9 months ago

Did anybody watch the Ohio State, Michigan game last night. I couldn't stand listening to Dickie V pronouce his love for Aaron Craft. They are still annointing Craft as the DPOY, and didn't even mention OSU's loss to KU. I wish that OSU had in fact pulled off the upset, but I think that it was fitting that it was Aaron Craft who sunk OSU at the end of regulation and at the end of overtime with his horrible point guard play.

Seriously, Craft should have gotten the ball into the hands of Thomas or Smith Jr at the end of that game instead he tried to take it himself and he failed miserably.

BCRavenJHawkfan 9 years, 9 months ago

I did and thought the same.

Also watched Florida get whipped and hung out to dry. I'm naming it the Icarus Syndrome - getting so close to the number one ranking that your wings melt. :)

BCRavenJHawkfan 9 years, 9 months ago

Good stuff. But I still contend that if you score 80 and don't win it's not an offense problem, it is/was a defense problem.

ParisHawk 9 years, 9 months ago

The worst defense is bad offense.

Take away half the points OSU scored on our turnovers and we lead by double digits late in the game.

I grant that the other thing that killed us in the second half was bad defensive rebounding. So I'll meet you half way.

ParisHawk 9 years, 9 months ago

Great stuff as usual, Jesse. So it looks like EJ's problems are not general, but in a few specific areas. That would seem easier to fix.

You are confirming HighEliteMajor's continuous call for Travis to do more on offense.

jgkojak 9 years, 9 months ago

Watching that video -

Elijah this year is NOT the same player - he has no elevation - I think his knee or whatever injury it is, is bothering him a lot more than he lets on.

Tony Bandle 9 years, 9 months ago

Part of EJ's problem is the offensive make-up of this team.

1] BenMac is the only true offensive threat and even he hasn't totally developed his ability to individually create his own shots.

2] Kevin is more efficient as a reactor as opposed to a creator on offense. Left on his own, he is subpar, putting it kindly.

3] Jeff has a relatively narrow offensive niche, which he is very good at, by the way, but it doesn't include that 12' - 15' jump shot we could desperately use.

4] I think Travis has the ability to create, to react and to initiate on offense but so many times he is so focused on his outstanding defense, his offense suffers.

5] Naadir is too streaky and Perry, Jamari, Rio are still learning.

6] AWIII may be the offensive answer, but his PT per HCBS indicates a shortcoming some where.

Because of some of the holes in the offense, EJ is expected to fill in as a three point bomber, a penetrating force, a distributor and still provide mid-range shot coverage. I think it is too much to ask based on his limited physicality.

Any improvement from points 1 thru 6 would truly help him as well.

Jack Wilson 9 years, 9 months ago

Oak .. I have to reiterate the "bingo" there from ralster.

I also think angle of attack is important, as well as "back" responsibility. The 1 guard is up top more. Attacking/penetrating from the wing is really easier (most of the time I think). It takes a different skill set to penetrate from up top when there is no clear out. Quickness has a lot to do with that. Further, the 1 usually has responsibility to get back on D more than others. It's a different game as the 1.

Chris Nieto 9 years, 9 months ago

AW3 can't handle the ball that well yet, otherwise he would get more PT.

Michael Luby 9 years, 9 months ago

Smh, I didnt really like the idea of EJ continuing at PG before I saw this post. Now I really dont like it. Coach has to do what is best for the team, not what is best for EJ's dwindling confidence. Bench him, make him the 6th man. Temporarily.

Michael Bennett 9 years, 9 months ago

I really think having Zach Peters this year would have helped fill in holes more than people realize as well. The guy could have played the 3 through 5 positions and help clean up after any of those guys having a poor performance. He also seemed to have what our other 4s seem to be lacking, which is good shooting skill level with the size and strength to make it happen more consistently. I'm not sure how it would help our erratic guard play, but it'd certainly give us more options for moving guys around and tinkering with positions. More banging on the inside would help Elijah finish better as well. Just my 2 cents

SCHNBALL 9 years, 9 months ago

This one is pretty simple, watch the scouting video from the 4:11 mark on, you will see the same player you see this year, only diffrerence is he is at the point now. Does he have an injured knee, is he tired, who knows, but we all know we do not have the inside game we had last year, thus making even tougher on the point guard. After reading all the post, I woud have to agree with Jaybate that in the end, 1 through 6 on on Oakvile post probably won't work and we will begin to see Xtreme ball.

Robbk1066 9 years, 9 months ago

Great article Jesse, was just thinking about how you measure lost possessions after the OSU game. Its such a big factor with Coach Self and thought he might measure this someway. When watching BB it always comes down to time and score for me and how in college these young guys lose perspective on momentum and the pressure that puts on a defense, when you control the ball, even without a score. If EJ would just slow down and be more delibrate he might be able to get out of this slump. We must have him, no doubt there, but we can't afford him if he continues to give the other team the ball.

blindrabbit 9 years, 9 months ago

As I watched the Michigan/Ohio State game last night, I realized the last 10 minutes of that game was a carbon copy of the OSU/KU game on Saturday. The play of Dickie V's loverboy Aaron Craft was horrible (several turnovers and bad play selection) as was EJ's; too bad Ohio State handed that one away. Keep in mind Vitale needs to hook himself to a player each year and he will fawn over that player regardless of his actual performance. Remember anybody from Duke , North Carolina, Ohio State, Syracuse are considered to be his favorite hunting grounds

Chuck Stones 9 years, 9 months ago

After watching that scouting video, EJ just looks like a guy who is trying NOT to turn over, rather than playing ball. I think he has put a huge amount of pressure on himself this year and it looks like he's a half step slower and it could be the knee, but I really think he is just thinking rather Han playing. Last year he had TT running he show and he could just shoot and drive because others were focusing on TRob and TT. I have thought hat EJ was trying to be TT. It could be what Jesse said about avoiding contact, but it looks like he is forcing it in he lane. I truly believe hat last year he would have stopped short and taken that 3 at the end of the OkieSt game, this year he tried to be the point guard and make something else happen.

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