Kansas senior Elijah Johnson was not a point guard before this season.
It wasn't Johnson's game. It wasn't his position. That's not who he was. He was a shooter, and that's the position that he played for the Jayhawks throughout a season that brought them to the brink of a national title—shooting guard.
But with the departure of Tyshawn Taylor, and the addition of redshirt freshman Ben McLemore, Elijah Johnson has been placed in that unfamiliar role as point guard on Bill Self's team.
As a point guard, Johnson had a shaky start to the season.
In Kansas' early-season loss to Michigan State, Johnson had just two assists and turned the ball over four times. An assist-to-turnover ratio of 0.5-to-1 is never a good thing, even if it was just the second game of the season. But when a point guard takes nine more shots than any other player on his team, as Johnson did in that loss to the Spartans, it is a sign that the player just doesn't understand his role of a point guard.
"You don’t realize it when you’re playing on the wing," Johnson was quoted as saying in an early December article by The Kansas City Star's Rustin Dodd. "But as a point guard, you have to make sure that all five people are in order.”
In the past month-and-a-half Elijah Johnson seems to have learned a lot about being a point guard. As Johnson spoke to the media in a hallway of Allen Fieldhouse on Thursday, he sounded like he has not only embraced the role but came across like a veteran of the position after just half of a season.
"I base my stats on how everybody else plays," Johnson said, with a photo of the last national championship trophy Kansas won in 2008 just over his right shoulder.
The Jayhawks have one of college basketball's greatest scorers on their roster this season in Ben McLemore, and Johnson recognizes one of the most important things about a great scorer—they need the ball in their hands.
"I lost a couple games in my book, 'cause I didn't get Ben going," Johnson said. "If we're gonna lose, we gotta lose with him."
Truth be told, the Jayhawks are 14-0 since that loss to Michigan State. In those 14 games, Johnson seems to have learned that his job is not as difficult as it may have appeared when the spotlight felt so bright.
Johnson has stopped taking 15 shots a game and started judging his own play on how the team has played.
"I like to see how the team evolves, so I put my stats in that." Johnson said.
That is the same judgement that Self is using as Elijah's coach (via kuathletics.com). For Self, the point guard position should be viewed the same way that the quarterback is viewed in football. Sure, stats mean something to a quarterback, but as long as the team is winning people are usually happy with the quarterback.
"And to me, there's only one stat that matters to a point guard and that is wins and losses," Self continued. "I think we've done a really good job there. The one thing that I will say about Elijah; that we know he can do, because we've all seen it—he hasn't made shots yet."
Johnson is shooting 43 percent from the field this season, the same figure he shot last season, but that stat has steadily dropped over his career. The 10 points per game average is also about the same as last season, but assists are up—5.2 assists per game compared to last season's 3.5.
At some point this season, Johnson will need to make a decision. Teams will focus their defensive pressure on McLemore, knowing the freshman's scoring ability. Johnson will have to be ready to call his own number to try and take pressure off McLemore.
"He's been very solid," Self said. "And he's been matched up against other great guards, he's done a really nice job with those particular matchups."
Johnson has made tremendous strides in his transition from shooting guard to point guard. There is still room to grow. I believe that Johnson's decision-making will continue to improve and with that so will the Jayhawk offense.
"We play. We take the shots that are open," Johnson said. "We make 'em, we miss 'em, we keep playing."
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