Four Kansas players have been chosen Big 12 player of the week this season. To hear Jayhawks coach Bill Self, one of the ones who hasn’t has as much ability as any of those who have.
“His time is coming,” Self said of Elijah Johnson. “He doesn’t know just how good he is.”
Johnson is the 6-foot-4 junior shooting guard who sometimes acts as KU’s primary ball-handler. His athleticism allows him does a little bit of everything for Kansas, including going strong to the boards.
But Johnson has the potential to do the most damage to opponents from beyond the three-point arc. Perhaps only Conner Teahan among the Jayhawks has a smoother release.
“Just about every time it leaves his hand it looks good,” Self said.
Until it gets to the basket, where it’s almost difficult to believe Johnson succeeds at a 29.4 percent rate. One of his worst shooting games of the season came last month against Texas A&M, Wednesday night’s opponent. Johnson missed all six of his three-point tries in KU’s 10-point victory in Lawrence.
He has had a couple of solid outings since then, including getting the Jayhawks off to a fast start with three first-half threes against Oklahoma State.
In his first year as a starter, Johnson has been a steady hand who rarely leaves the floor. He ranks second on the team in minutes played, logging a shade fewer than 32 per game.
Johnson has scored as many as 23 points in a game (against UCLA), knocked down as many as five threes (against Ohio State), has been the top assist man nine times and tops the team in steals.
Still, shooting tends to define Johnson, and earlier in the season, he fretted over that part of his game. After all, he made 40 percent of his threes last season. Where was that stroke this season?
“I know I can shoot, everyone knows I can,” Johnson said. “But I played like I couldn’t shoot, and that made me learn something about the game.”
He learned to contribute in other ways, especially on defense. Johnson observed how teammate Travis Releford took great pride in his defensive abilities, and has attempted to bring the same passion to that part of his game.
“A lot of people don’t give me credit for my defense,” Johnson said. “But when people score on me, it really kills me.”
In a victory last week at Kansas State, Johnson said he was upset that the Wildcats’ Will Spradling scored seven of his 10 points on him.
“I was down after the game, and people thought it was because my shot wasn’t falling,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t paying attention to that. But being scored on, I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. That’s something I got from Travis.”
Another defensive assignment for Johnson has been Baylor shooting guard Brady Heslip, who ranks among the Big 12’s top three-point shooters at 45.1 percent. But in two games against KU, Heslip scored three points in 49 minutes.
As a playmaker, Johnson ranks behind Tyshawn Taylor in assists but is the team leader in assist-turnover ratio at 1.8 (101 assists, 55 turnovers). The emergence of Jeff Withey — 17.5 points over the past four games — has given the Kansas guards another primary target inside.
Johnson said he and Withey have always had a connection.
“Since I got here, I’ve always played great with Jeff,” Johnson said. “I’m a guard who can play well with a big. Even in the games we’d get into for a couple of minutes a couple of years ago I would always find him for an alley-oop.”
That happens more often now, along with his sticky defense, and board play that’s the product of springy legs.
The shot’s not there with the accuracy Johnson would like. But the other parts of his game are just fine.