LAWRENCE — Sometimes, talking to Kansas freshman guard Elijah Johnson, you wonder if his body has been taken over by a sage old man. Because how many teenagers who plan on being a great basketball player could say things like this when they have only played 11 total minutes in nine Big 12 games?
"I'm not a super hero," Johnson said. "I can't come in right away and win a national championship. I feel I need to learn first. I've been learning a lot sitting on the bench. I think I learn more on the bench than I would on the floor. I don't think a lot of people understand, but I do, and I see it through Coach (Bill) Self's eyes. I see the bigger picture. It's not a rush. I gotta learn first, then I can give him what he wants."
Self wanted Johnson to contribute more this season, which is why he did not encourage the talented freshman from Las Vegas to redshirt. Self saw Johnson's raw athleticism and his potential to speed up the game and felt there would be a role for him at some point.
"If there's anybody on the team that's the odd man out, it's Elijah," Self said. "Last year, it could have been Travis (Releford). Every team has a guy. I'm not being negative, just factual. He's our next perimeter player. I think he's gonna be really good. Really good. I don't see him in this particular year moving himself ahead of those guys if those guys keep playing the way they're playing."
Those guys are Sherron Collins, Brady Morningstar, Xavier Henry, Tyshawn Taylor and Tyrel Reed, and, if nothing else, Johnson served as a motivating factor for Taylor when he started over him for two games in December. Johnson has also spent significant effort trying to give Collins and Taylor in particular the best challenge he can during practices.
But Self isn't willing to count out Johnson just yet, even though he has been hesitant to put him in the teeth of a close game in the new year. In fact, Self offered quite a carrot to Johnson and fellow freshman Thomas Robinson, whose playing time has also decreased.
"Elijah could be the Cole (Aldrich) of 2008," Self said, referring to Aldrich's breakout game against North Carolina in the national semifinal. "Buy his time, and Thomas could also. Then when they get an opportunity, really be prepared to make the most of it."
Johnson, who seems to pick up on everything, had already made that jump.
"I think about that a lot," Johnson said. "Cole's an All-American and he didn't come in and take over the team right away. He took his butt-whippings every day his freshman year at practice kind of like I take now. Sherron and Tyshawn, they get after me a lot. I feel like that's making me stronger."
Self said Johnson and Robinson are where they should be. He did not recruit them thinking they'd be great players in year one. While that's easy for Self to say, one would expect that would be harder for Johnson to hear. He has never sat before this season, and he could be redshirting.
"I still don't feel like I should have redshirted," Johnson said, "because you never know, my number could be called. You would think it's harder than it is, but it's not too hard. I'm actually enjoying this year."
Johnson says he is not the type to complain about playing time.
"I would never demand minutes," Johnson said. "My senior year I wouldn't demand minutes. I chose to play on this team. I gotta do what's best for the team."
Johnson was asked about his surprising ability to see the big picture.
"I got it from my dad," Johnson said. "You gotta be patient. If you can't show patience, you don't really want anything."
Morris says he will be back next season — Kansas forward Marcus Morris said that his dazzling performance during Big 12 play this season — he leads KU with 17.8 points per game and is also adding 8.4 rebounds — has not affected his mindset about coming back to school for his junior season.
"Never," Morris said. "I never even thought about the NBA coming into the year. I'd rather win. I'm coming back next year and maybe my senior year. There's no talk about it. That's not really an issue."
What is an issue for Morris is the injury to his right middle finger, sustained on Monday at Texas when his hand hit the bottom of the backboard. Morris was wearing a padded covering over the finger on Thursday that he could wear for as long as 8 weeks.
"At the game, my finger was kind of numb, but now I'm getting full feeling," Morris said. "Gotta really see how it is to practice with it, to get hit with it. When someone swipes down at it, it might be painful."