LAWRENCE — Elijah Johnson thought it all sounded intriguing, maybe even promising. The ball would be in his hands. He could dictate the pace. After three years of waiting, he would be the man charge.
No, Johnson didn’t want to say that Kansas would be his team this season— he’s just one of four seniors — but as a senior becoming the Jayhawks’ lead guard for the first time, he was ready for the coveted keys to the program.
“I’ll definitely drive,” Johnson said then.
This was back in October, of course, just a few days before Kansas officially started practice. And a few things have changed since then. The Jayhawks are now 18-1, rolling toward a ninth straight Big 12 title as they travel to conference newcomer West Virginia for tonight’s Big Monday matchup. In a big-picture sense, the Jayhawks are moving from Point A to Point B, and doing it with mostly solid results.
But then there’s Johnson, the guard with the keys; and after nearly three months as Kansas’ point guard, Johnson is learning there’s a little more pressure — and a little more stress — when you’re the one behind the wheel.
In Kansas’ first 19 games, Johnson is shooting just 39.8 percent from the floor and 34.6 percent from three-point range while averaging 9.5 points per game. All three numbers are down from a season ago, a growing trend that Johnson has tried to shake off.
“It’s a little frustrating right now,” Johnson said. “I feel like my numbers, as far as shooting, hasn’t really shown how good I can really shoot in college.”
Johnson’s offensive struggles have become magnified as KU has struggled to score in Big 12 play. The Jayhawks are averaging just 62.2 points per game in their last five contests, the worst five-game stretch since Bill Self arrived at Kansas — and a number that doesn’t feel too removed from peach baskets and two-handed set shots.
“I don’t feel like I’ve shot to my potential at all,” Johnson said. “Although my shots are limited — I don’t shoot that many — I need some to start falling for me. But I’m not focused on it too much.”
This, of course, is the burden of playing point guard at a place like Kansas. Even as KU ascends to the top of the polls, the Jayhawks’ recent point-guard play has sparked a few red flags. Last season, it was Tyshawn Taylor working through some early-season issues — remember “Good Tyshawn” and “Bad Tyshawn” — before eventually leading Kansas to another Big 12 title and Final Four appearance.
And perhaps victories are really the most relevant statistic. Earlier this month, coach Bill Self used a football analogy when asked to analyze Johnson’s performance. If a first-year quarterback had guided his team to an 18-1 record and a top-two ranking, most observers would probably think that quarterback was playing pretty well.
Further, Johnson has a history of slow starts. Last season, he was shooting just 30 percent from three-point range in KU’s fist 19 games. By April, he had averaged 15.1 points in Kansas’ final eight games, helping the Jayhawks to the NCAA title game.
That, of course, didn’t stop Self from using some critical words when describing KU’s guard play after a 67-54 victory over Oklahoma on Saturday.
“We can’t dribble past anybody, and we don’t,” Self said. “And we don’t drive to pass. And there’s a lot of things that I think weren’t great.”
Johnson, of course, has had the challenge of playing alongside two backcourt players — Ben McLemore and Travis Releford — who don’t possess true point-guard skills or instincts. And for Johnson, the result has been a few more assists (3.5 to 4.8) but a larger increase in turnovers (1.8 to 3.2). In addition, Johnson is no longer benefitting from the open looks that Taylor used to provide.
Still, Johnson’s shooting slump hasn’t stopped Self or his teammates from believing in his skill-set. The stroke is still there, they say, and it’s just a matter of time before the shots start falling.
“We’re supporting him,” Releford said. “Coach is telling him to keep shooting. Because it looks good. He hasn’t done anything different or changed anything.”
This is how Kansas arrives in West Virginia for the first time. The KU offense has been spotty, but the Jayhawks’ boa-constrictor defense has kept them perfect in the Big 12. For now, Johnson says that’s all that matters.
“I’m perfectly fine with the way we’re winning right now,” Johnson said, “because I know that, down the stretch, we’ll figure it out.”