Elijah Johnson can have a stubborn side, and it surfaced on Sunday, during a lengthy conversation with Kansas coach Bill Self.
Self had called in his Jayhawks for what Johnson termed a three-hour meeting, and Self spent some of the time cajoling and consoling his struggling point guard. Even after 19 turnovers in his last five games, and a poor performance in a loss to Oklahoma State on Saturday, Johnson didn’t think he needed a pep talk. So perhaps it didn’t sink in right away.
But whatever Self said, it began to hit Johnson when he returned home. Maybe he really did need to hear from Self.
“I know that he’s still riding with me no matter what,” Johnson said. “I’m just trying to grow up right now.”
Johnson said this on Monday afternoon, two days after one of the low points of his career, and just a few hours after Self voiced a strong public vote of confidence for a senior that has struggled in his transition from off-guard to lead guard.
“Elijah’s my guy,” Self said. “He’s my guy, and we have the best chance to win with Elijah in the game. And he’s learning how to play a position, and he’s thinking too much instead of playing.
“But that is the horse that we are gonna ride. And I believe that will be the best for our team.”
Self’s firm statement squelched any lingering questions after he spent most of Saturday night questioning his team’s toughness and guard play. Self went as far as saying his team didn’t have a “point guard” — an admission that served as a pointed critique of Johnson’s play.
In his first season as Kansas’ lead guard, Johnson is averaging 9.3 points while shooting 38.5 percent from the field and 33 percent from the three-point line. More costly for KU: he’s also struggled to become a consistent facilitator, averaging 3.2 turnovers in 22 games.
Johnson, speaking for the first time since the Oklahoma State loss, said he felt a sense of responsibility for the rare loss at Allen Fieldhouse.
“I never rallied our team up at the end of the game,” Johnson said. “I blame that loss on me, 100 percent.”
Johnson does not want to say that he’s been pressing over the last few weeks. But maybe if he was making some more shots, he’d be handing the ball and running the offense with a little more confidence.
“Shooting can definitely give you a different kind of confidence,” Johnson said. “I feel like if I was making shots right now, I’d be playing different.”
Johnson, who had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee last spring, hasn’t appeared to play with the same bounce and athleticism that he showcased earlier in his career. But Johnson said Monday that he felt fully healthy.
On Monday, Self pointed out that Johnson went through a similar shooting slump last season. And to date, his shooting percentages are about what they were at this time last season. Johnson, of course, emerged from that spell and became one of KU’s most clutch performers during its run to the NCAA title game.
For now, there are few other point-guard options in the backcourt, anyway. Sophomore Naadir Tharpe has battled his own shooting slump. And with a road game at Oklahoma on Saturday, and a home game against K-State next Monday, Self believes his team needs its best players ready to go. That includes Johnson, who is hoping to replicate last year’s late-season surge.
“Do we have a chance,” Self said, “to go to the national championship game on February 1 (last year) if we would have said ‘You know what, Elijah’s just not producing, we have got to get somebody else in there?’ Zero.
“I’m banking on the same thing happening this year.”