Sophomore G Elijah Johnson
The wait isn't over, but Kansas fans can rest easy—freshman phenom Josh Selby will play for the Jayhawks this season.
On Friday after KU's 93-60 throbbing of North Texas, news broke that a verdict on Selby's amateur status was finally handed down by the NCAA. The Baltimore product was suspended nine regular season games for receiving improper benefits. Because Selby sat out the first three games of the season, he'll be eligible to play on December 18 when the Jayhawks welcome Southern Cal to Allen Fieldhouse.
The Selby hype machine has been running strong for months, and only gained steam as Jayhawk nation anxiously awaited the NCAA's decision on his eligibility. The highest-rated recruit to sign with Kansas in the modern era, Selby has received praise from coach Bill Self for his incredible natural gifts. Last week, Self was wise in trying to temper expectations for his talented freshman.
Whether or not Selby is the impact star most expect him to be remains to be seen.
Still, its safe to say he'll crack KU's loaded perimeter rotation and be a mainstay in the Jayhawks' success. Obviously, someone will have to sacrifice some or all of their minutes to make room for Selby.
The (assumed) candidates? Senior Brady Morningstar and sophomores Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson.
Morningstar, a redshirt who will turn 25 in January, is one of the most polarizing players to ever don the crimson and blue. Some see his value as a defender, ball-mover and calming floor presence even though he doesn't light up the box score. Others consider his consistent floor time in lieu of other, more highly-recruited players as something that will keep KU from reaching its real potential.
No matter what the fans think, its all but set in stone that Morningstar's spot among Self's five "smalls" is safe even with the addition of Selby. Brady is a coach's favorite, and won't be relegated to a benchwarming role his senior year.
The real analysis begins when determining whether Releford or Johnson will grab the remaining spot in the rotation. Rest assured, despite the talents of both neither of them can have a significant role this season. That's not how Self does it. He plays five "smalls" and four "bigs." Any talk of a 10- or 11-man rotation by KU fans is baseless and irrelevant.
Now, the book on Releford.
A 6'5'' wing, he is one of KU's best athletes and the only perimeter player on the roster with influential length. While he is a great finisher and good (though occasional) penetrator, Releford's true value will be felt on the other end of the floor. His combination of size and athleticism makes him a potential lockdown defender. Though he's shown a tendency to lose his man off the ball, his one-on-one defense early in 2010 has been the team's best.
As for Johnson, he's the only Jayhawk perhaps capable of matching Selby athletically. At 6'3'' with an unproven jumper, he is best suited to play on the ball as opposed to the wing. Johnson is a talented ballhandler and passer, capable of playing the role of a point guard who can penetrate and make plays for himself and others. He's got the tools to be an impact defender, but hasn't shown the ability to make a difference on that end of the floor in his limited time this year.
So who takes the spot?
Based on the merits and talents of linchpins Selby, Tyshawn Taylor and Tyrel Reed, Releford will be the one to round out KU's perimeter quintet.
Why? He simply brings added attributes to the floor that Johnson doesn't.
In Selby, Taylor, Reed and Morningstar, KU has four players all 6'3'' or shorter, none of whom could effectively defend tall threes, and two of which (Selby and Taylor) need the ball in their hands to be their best. Releford, in addition to what he's shown defensively this year, has proven to be a good passer within the flow of the offense and comfortable without the ball in his hands.
Johnson, for all his physical gifts, is at this point in his career a lesser version of Selby and Taylor (that's no slight-those two are good). He's an athletic combo guard with great athleticism who is best with the ball. He's not an elite three point threat (like Reed), not a fundamentally sound safety valve (like Morningstar), and not a player with good size who makes his mark on defense (like Releford). He just doesn't fit well with KU's best players.
When Selby makes his Kansas debut, lineups and rotations will be a work in progress. It's likely he won't even start his initial game as a Jayhawk. What we see on December 18 against the Trojans will not be what we see on January 29 against KSU. As Selby gets comfortable and Big XII play arrives, leashes will be tightened and the team will be molded.
As that happens, watch for Releford's minutes to rise and Johnson's to fall.