Sophomore ready to take big steps in 2010

A newcomer with huge expectations on his shoulders in 2009, Elijah Johnson kicked off his freshman campaign at the University of Kansas with a bang – before the speed of the game caught up with him. Now a year older, wiser, and with a season of learning under his belt, the explosive guard is looking to make a difference.

There are times when Elijah Johnson doesn't even want to think about basketball.

Sounds almost incomprehensible, right? Blessed with pogo sticks where his legs should be and elite basketball ability, the Las Vegas native was one of the most highly regarded prospects in the country during his career at Cheyenne High School.

From a pool of suitors that included the likes of Arizona, Oklahoma, Texas and UNLV, Johnson eventually picked Kansas shortly after the 2008 edition of "Late Night in the Phog."

Kansas, one of college basketball's blue-bloods, where members of the basketball team are treated as minor deities.

But with all the privileges that come with being a demigod in Lawrence, Kan., there's pressure, too. Expectations are through the roof, particularly with a player of Johnson's prep prestige.

Instant production isn't just expected by Jayhawk Nation, it's demanded, and their adulation comes at a price – a price paid in buckets of sweat shed in the weight room; in thousands of shots hoisted in the off-season, alone in the gym; and in countless hours studying plays and watching film.

So, yeah. There are days when Elijah Johnson doesn't even want to look at a basketball. But this summer the sophomore point guard learned to not only control that impulse – he learned to conquer it.

And that one, seemingly simple lesson learned – that self-improvement comes through self-sacrifice – is what he believes will make all the difference in the season ahead.

"That's when it's going to come down to it," Johnson said. "When you don't feel like going for the loose ball, you've got to. When you don't feel like you can make that shot, that's when you're going to have to shoot it."

****

Last season started out with a bang for the explosive guard. Though overshadowed by the presence of one-and-done freshman small forward Xavier Henry, Johnson opened eyes right off the bat with his ability.

In the second half of the Jayhawks' first exhibition game of the season, an early November tilt with Fort Hays State, he went up seemingly into the rafters of Allen Field House to catch a Tyshawn Taylor alley-oop and hammer it home.

Up to the season opener, Head Coach Bill Self had been considering a redshirt for Johnson. The Jayhawks had a deep, experienced and talented backcourt, even with him on the bench, and an extra year of practice and eligibility is never a bad thing.

"We were thinking strongly about redshirting Elijah, but I'm not feelin' that," Self said, following the Nov. 3, 2009 contest. "I think he can help us play faster."

And for a while, it appeared as if that would indeed be the case. He continued as part of the backcourt rotation during the course of the following month, turning in inconsistent – if occasionally spectacular – performances. 21 minutes against Alcorn State, for example, showcased another side of his basketball ability. Though he went scoreless, Johnson dished out a team and season-high nine assists, while turning it over just three times.

The performance earned him his first career start, in the Jayhawks' Dec. 9 home game versus Radford. Johnson didn't disappoint, playing 15 solid minutes in which he scored 11 points, including a pair of three-pointers, an assist and no turnovers.

Stepping up in place of Taylor alongside senior star Sherron Collins in the backcourt, the talented freshman appeared ready to explode – and then the LaSalle game happened.

In his second career start, Johnson hit the proverbial freshman wall, tallying just six minutes of playing time, dishing out two assists and scoring just a single point.

The speed of the college game, it seemed had finally caught up to him.

"It happens so fast," he said, of big-time college hoops. "It moves so quick, and it's hard to react to it when you don't really know what's going on."

During the remainder of the season, Johnson logged mostly mop-up minutes in blowout victories, averaging 6.6 minutes per game, along with 2.4 points and 1.3 assists.

Throughout it all, however, he kept a smile on his face. Though fans came to question his easygoing demeanor on the bench and in interviews, to Johnson it was all a part of the learning process.

It was a confusing time, he explained, where what seemed so natural and easy for his teammates was so difficult for him. The difference was experience. It wasn't that he wasn't working as hard as he could to claw his way back into the rotation.

Rather, it was a realization of how far he had to go.

"So as hard as I fought, it's like jumping into the ring with (Mike) Tyson," Johnson said. "I had no experience. I didn't know what I was doing, so at the end of the day I could work 10 times harder than him and he'd knock me out."

Rather than grow uselessly frustrated, what he chose to do instead was learn. In practice, in the film room and from the sideline, Johnson soaked up every bit of knowledge he could. That's why, in his mind, his freshman season was invaluable, despite a lack of playing time.

"Simply because I sat on the bench all last year, and got to see it first-hand for myself, and didn't have to take it from somebody else's notebook and re-write it," he said. "I can write it for myself now."

"I never gave up on the fight," he added. "But at the same time, I never had too much potential to win it."

He then caught himself mid-thought, paused, and re-phrased.

"I had potential to win it, but I didn't have a great chance of winning it," Johnson explained. "It's just the way the odds fall sometimes."

****

During Media Day 2010, Self was asked about virtually every player on the roster, and how they had improved during the off-season.

But when the questions touched on Johnson, the Kansas head honcho admitted he wasn't quite sure what to expect. He knows he's improved, that his commitment level is high, but also that Johnson hasn't performed when the lights are on.

"But I think he's going to be a really good player," Self said. "Hopefully it's sooner rather than later, but he's going to be a guy who is potentially a starter, depending on how things play out, and certainly a guy who over the course of his career there's no question should be a starter."

The 6-foot-3 guard hears that, and shrugs off the praise.

"If I wasn't fighting for a starting job, I don't think he would want me here," he said, of his head coach. "Every year they recruited me, it was 'You'll fight to be a starter.' It was never 'You come and you accept coming off the bench.' It was never that. It was always 'You'll get the chance to do it. How fast can you learn?'

Now, with the lessons of a year spent in the classroom of the hardwood behind him, Johnson appears poised to take a spot at the head of the class.

"Now, I see and I feel like I learned more than a lot of people have learned in between their freshman and sophomore year," he said. "Going through what I went through, simply because I accepted the role and I had a good attitude about it."

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