Why Naadir Tharpe Should Replace Elijah Johnson in Kansas' Starting Lineup
College athletes only receive four years of eligibility, meaning senior Kansas Jayhawks point guard Elijah Johnson will have exhausted his eligibility at the conclusion of the 2012-13 season. An extra year to understand head coach Bill Self's offensive system and expectations from his floor leader would be nice—a year that former guard Tyshawn Taylor had the luxury of, after taking over the point duties from Sherron Collins in 2010.
Taylor was not considered a true point guard after his first two years in Lawrence but landed on the AP's All-Big 12 first team after his second season running the high-low offense as a senior. Elijah Johnson is an athletic freak with excellent scoring ability similar to Taylor, but halfway through the Jayhawks' nonconference slate Johnson appears to be struggling adjusting from his 2-guard.
A bruised knee against Saint Louis and nasty tailbone-crushing fall versus Oregon State combined with Johnson's struggle has led Self to seek alternative options. He even inserted freshman walk-on Evan Manning into the Oregon State game late in the first half and experimented with forward Kevin Young at point guard in practice last week.
Recruiting guru Self really did not lure a true point guard to the Phog following the loss of Collins and Taylor? He sure did: Naadir Tharpe.
True point guard Tharpe, a sophomore averaging just under 17 minutes per game off the bench, has shown signs of brilliance when running the show. However, much to the chagrin of Self, foolish miscues on entry passes and poor perimeter shooting has prevented him from capitalizing.
Johnson's current stats are far from ugly, as he is averaging 10.1 PPG, 4.6 APG and 2.8 turnovers in 29.1 minutes played per game. He also is shooting 43 percent from the floor and 73 percent from the free throw-line with two nine-assist games mixed in—therefore, where is his game suffering?
Self has repeatedly said Johnson must pass to finish plays, not pass to start plays. This aspect will not be directly seen on the stat sheet, but it severely disrupts the flow of the offense, an offense that relies heavily on inside position and timely penetration from advantageous Kansas guards.
Johnson was arguably one of the most versatile and athletic guards Self ever recruited to Kansas, but he was unable to contribute consistently as a shooting guard until breakout performances last February and March. Unfortunately for the Las Vegas native, he was thrust into a new role soon after becoming comfortable in his current role.
Kansas must move the senior to the bench in favor of the unseasoned underclassman. Elijah Johnson is not receiving a demotion from the spotlight, but a favor for both his long-term future and the near future of Jayhawks basketball.
Who should be Kansas' starting point guard for the remainder of the season?
By allowing Johnson to relieve a foul-plaqued Ben McLemore, Travis Releford or even Kevin Young in a smaller lineup, he can return to his natural position, one he began to thrive in late last season. He is the most consistent three-point shooter on the roster but cannot pass himself open, as uncomfortable as that may sound, in order to get more open looks and penetration opportunities for foul shots. Entering this week's Belmont game, Johnson has attempted only 11 free throws.
The first pass is not nearly as important as the fourth, fifth, sixth or seventh pass in the pass-heavy sets and without an ability to create for himself off a tremendous dish, Johnson will not be able to find that open spot outside the arc.
Conner Frankamp and Frank Mason will be joining Tharpe at point guard in 2013, but it is unlikely either will immediately seize the day with immediate floor leader duties. Increased minutes for Tharpe provides ample opportunity to study passing lanes, create space for himself after that sixth pass, and abuse out-of-position defenders.
A true point guard for an elite Big 12 shooting guard in Elijah Johnson provides him a new Sherron Collins or Tyshawn Taylor—a player with enough quickness to penetrate and dish to finish a play.
Johnson will once again flourish on the other end of that dish, just like he did with three minutes to play in the 2012 Elite Eight to spur a UNC-drowning 12-0 run.
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