LAWRENCE | Kansas coach Bill Self was strongly considering slapping a redshirt on freshman guard Elijah Johnson – until he actually saw the kid play.
In the second half of his Allen Fieldhouse game debut, a 107-68 KU exhibition victory over Fort Hays State, Johnson showed 16,300 curious others why Self has changed his tune.
KU guard Tyshawn Taylor found himself on a two-on-one with a streaking Johnson and lofted the ball to the right side of the rim. He had seen enough in practice to know that the freakishly athletic Johnson would make him look good. Seconds later, the Fieldhouse was rocking for the first time this season after Johnson elevated and flushed it home for a two-handed alley-oop.
“That’s what we needed to get the crowd going,” Taylor said. “I felt it was a little dead in there.”
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Last season, there was not close to as much high-flying as in 2007-08. The Fieldhouse wasn’t dead very often, but the Jayhawks didn’t do as much athletically to infuse it with life. This freshman class, particularly Johnson, will provide a shot in the arm for any fans considering a nap.
“Elijah is a different caliber athlete,” Self said. “I’m not feeling (redshirting him). I think he can impact our team. We still have another week to figure it out. I think he can help us play faster.”
There’s a slight chance that Johnson could still redshirt, but it’s looking to be an unlikely scenario. Johnson said now that his knee is 100 percent after offseason surgery that there would be no reason to sit out a year. Self will instead choose between senior guard Mario Little, sophomore guard Travis Releford and junior walk-on Conner Teahan, all of whom did not play in Tuesday’s game. A decision on redshirts should be reached by next Tuesday’s exhibition against Pittsburg State.
Johnson, a 6-foot-2 Las Vegas native, just wants to get out there again. He was bubbling with youthful energy after his first rim-rocker at the Fieldhouse.
“It felt great, unexplainable,” Johnson said. “I’ll never forget it. It was just adrenaline pumping 100 percent, the crowd going crazy, playing in front of that many people for the first time.”
It wasn’t always pretty for Johnson or for classmates Xavier Henry and Thomas Robinson. Johnson had nine points on four-of-five shooting but had four turnovers. Robinson had six points and seven rebounds but fouled out after being called for three fouls in 38 seconds in the second half. Henry had 14 points but didn’t affect the game in other ways like Self would like.
“His biggest strength is his body,” Self said. “He’s a strong guy that can make plays through his strength. He can use his body to drive it, to get fouled, for rebounding.”
In Johnson’s case, he just gets too sped up and turns the ball over. Still, he wouldn’t take back anything.
“Nothing, not even my mistakes,” Johnson said. “I appreciate everything I did out there. When I charged, when I threw the ball out of bounds, now I learned something from the night. If I didn’t do anything wrong, I wouldn’t have anything to gain from tonight.”
When the night began, Johnson didn’t even know how he’d make it through. He couldn’t function in warm-ups.
“Marcus Morris just told me to think about something funny,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t, and he said something funny, and that was it. I was calm. I realized it was just another day. Handle it in the appropriate way.”
That would be handling it with a monster jam, of course.
“I think we’re more athletic because of (the freshmen),” Self said. “If they all keep getting better, you may have something pretty good by January.”