Elijah Johnson has been a know-nothing freshman and a wise old senior. He was a blue-chip recruit and then a role player, an elite athlete and then crafty, for a while the most criticized man in one of the country’s most visible programs and now an indispensable piece of championship dreams.
Johnson is all of these things. The good. The bad. All of it. He is about to be more, too, because even four seasons and 134 games in, the most important pages of his Kansas basketball story are yet to be written.
A thoughtful and selfless young man’s college journey has led to Friday night’s Sweet 16 matchup against Michigan, and you can’t be sure how this will change the tale. Only that it will. In the meantime, Johnson’s father has an idea of what KU fans should remember.
“That smile,” Marcus Johnson says when asked what KU fans might years from now remember most about his son. “The one his mother gave him. The smile that stole me, he’s wearing it.”
Elijah Johnson says he’s not ready to put his KU career in perspective. He won’t sum it up, not until it’s done, and he’s not ready for it to be done yet. Johnson talks almost exclusively in terms of team, which is how a point guard should speak. Personal sacrifice is not a problem for him, and that’s never been more evident than this season. Playing out of position has been more difficult than he expected, both on the court and off.
But there is nobody on this team who has more personally invested in this weekend than Johnson. Even Ben McLemore, the wildly talented freshman, can be assured of being a high pick in the next NBA Draft.
Johnson’s path is much more complicated. The point guard of a team whose coach once said, “We don’t have a point guard,” is now going against perhaps the nation’s best point guard.
He’s been through so much at KU. The loss to Northern Iowa as a freshman. The run to the national championship game last year. He knows how this works. Knows the rules. Knows that college basketball teams are disproportionately judged on this small sample size. Knows what that means for him, the senior point guard who has been such an integral part of his team’s highs (39 points in a nationally televised win at Iowa State) and lows (nine-for-37 shooting over KU’s three-game losing streak).
“I don’t feel like we’ve played (well) yet,” Johnson says. “And I don’t think that’s how this year will end, so I feel like we’ll play.”
He is talking about this tournament specifically, and emphasizes himself as part of why the team hasn’t played well yet. This is the man Johnson has grown into. Team-first. Accountable. Confident through rough stretches.
He hit just one of six shots in each of KU’s wins over Western Kentucky and North Carolina in the first two rounds, with a total of six assists and five turnovers. Johnson says the misses are more about him than anything those teams did defensively.
“It’s been me defending myself,” he says.
This is such a complicated place for Johnson. He understands coach Bill Self’s definition of a point guard, and that the game “is in slow motion to me right now,” but also that the transition from shooting guard is “definitely way tougher than I thought it would be.”
This is a surprise. Johnson has always been adaptable. That’s one of the things that’s defined him, and not just in basketball. He grew up around danger in Gary, Ind., then moved to the possibilities of Las Vegas. Throw in frequent visits to family in Atlanta, and Marcus Johnson likes to say his son proved he can play and get along in most any environment.
Maybe that’s why Johnson says he expected an easier transition back to point guard. This is where he played his whole life before Kansas, after all. Setting up an offense, dictating a team’s pace — these are not new concepts for him.
They’ve felt new at times, though, which is part of the problem. McLemore is the top-shelf pro prospect, so his struggles in the first two rounds of this tournament are generating more attention. But Johnson is the senior point guard, the one with so much of his KU identity wrapped into the outcome.
He is not a natural point guard for this level. That much is clear by now, and the fault of recruiting mistakes by Self more than anything Johnson has or hasn’t done. Because at its best, his game is dynamic and fit for a championship team.
You often hear the Iowa State game referenced — Self called it the best individual performance he’s seen in 10 years at KU — which makes it easy to forget that Johnson had 10 and 12 assists in his next two games.
Johnson can be many things on the court, in other words. Some who are close to him say he can be like that off the court, too. And depending on what happens this weekend, he can be many things in the memories of KU fans.