LAWRENCE — When Elijah Johnson arrived at Kansas, he was a heralded five-star recruit out of Las Vegas known for his raw athletic ability and high-wire acts. Fans couldn't wait to see his talents on display at Allen Fieldhouse.
But it didn't work out that way. Johnson averaged 6.6 minutes because he couldn't prove to KU coach Bill Self that he was a better option than the homegrown Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar. Last season, Johnson saw more time, 13.7 minutes, but he still couldn't surpass Reed and Morningstar in the guard rotation.
Self may not spend much time talking to fans, but he knows how they think. And he doesn't want the crimson-and-blue faithful to be any less excited to see Johnson in the starting lineup Friday night against Towson in the season opener than they would have been two years ago.
"He's one of those talented guys that hasn't had the chance to do it yet," Self said. "I think sometimes when you have an unknown out there, like a freshman coming in, there's that anticipation because of the hype or whatever that this kid will be able to do this and that. I think sometimes when you have returning guys coming in that only played a little bit, how can you really believe that they're capable of doing the same things that guys in the past have done? I'm telling you, Elijah is. He's capable."
Johnson and Tyshawn Taylor will be back for No. 13 KU after serving their suspension for an offseason violation of team rules, which spanned the two exhibition games. Self said Johnson and Taylor have been running with the first team at just about all of the practices the last few weeks, so it won't be a matter of working them back into the flow with teammates.
KU fans have seen plenty of Taylor, who has averaged at least 23 minutes in his three seasons and started 89 games. That makes Johnson the main draw for Friday's game, which will serve as the Jayhawks' only tune-up for Tuesday's Champions Classic game against No. 2 Kentucky in New York.
In Madison Square Garden, Johnson will be up against an explosive collection of guards — freshman Marquis Teague, Rivals.com's top-ranked point guard in the 2011 class, sharpshooting sophomore Doron Lamb, steady senior Darius Miller and freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, ranked the No. 3 player in the class. But first, Johnson must have a good showing against Towson.
"I can't explain how excited I am," Johnson said. "Since high school I've been waiting for this moment, and it's finally here. We'll see what happens."
Johnson started five games last season in place of Taylor during and after Taylor's two-game suspension for a violation of team rules. KU won all of those, but Johnson wasn't asked to do much more than set the pace and let the Morris twins do their thing. This season, Johnson will have to carry more of the scoring load himself.
Several times, Self has lumped Johnson in with Taylor and forward Thomas Robinson as KU's three best players. Self said that Johnson may have played tentative in the past out of fear of being removed from the game, but that won't be an option this season.
"It's like crossing over that border when you know that you've got room for error," Johnson said. "You know you don't have to look at the bench every time. Coach knows that you know more than anybody else out there, and he trusts you more. That makes you play better."