When evaluating a box score, what's the first stat to draw the attention of any fan?
Total points. Everyone wants to know who led the team in scoring, in victory or defeat, and that observation is quickly followed by a glance at the number of field goals and three point field goals - both made and attempted.
It's human nature. And such a glance at Elijah Johnson's part in Wednesday night's Kansas victory over Kansas State probably draws some pretty ho-hum reactions from fans. In 35 minutes, he scored just three points - cashing in on 1-of-4 three-point attempts and going 1-of-7 from the field overall.
Sometimes, however, the stats don't paint the entire picture. Like the rest of the Jayhawks backcourt versus the Wildcats, Johnson played outstanding defense. He swiped three steals and grabbed eight rebounds - an incredible total for a guard - against one of the best rebounding teams in the conference, if not the country.
And on a team known for turning the ball over this season, he dished out five assists without a single turnover, despite playing virtually the entire game.
"When he had the ball in his hands, he was 5-and-0 against pressure," said Head Coach Bill Self in Wednesday's post-game press conference. "That's good. Defensive rebounding was excellent. To me, Elijah is a calming influence for our team. So I thought he played pretty well."
Johnson's role differs from backcourt mate Tyshawn Taylor. Though the senior is, nominally, the team's point guard, Self wants him constantly in attack mode - driving the lane and drawing defenses in. He's well-suited to the task, as his quickness, particularly his explosive first step, can make him a nightmare to defend.
But Taylor has, to put it bluntly, struggled this season protecting the basketball. He's second on the team in scoring at 15.1 ppg and first in assists with 71, but he also leads in turnovers by a wide margin with 58 giveaways. The next closest in that category is junior power forward Thomas Robinson with 36.
Fans wail and bemoan his turnovers, but the reality is eliminating Taylor from the lineup would cut the legs out from under the Kansas offense. He's the only guard with both the ability and willingness to slice through opposing defenses and get into the lane, and when he's on - as he was at times Wednesday - he's capable of things few guards in the country can match.
With Taylor, Kansas takes both the good and the bad, because the good is frequently great. However, his inconsistencies make Johnson all the more important, and the Las Vegas native is beginning to fit more and more comfortably into the role.
Yes, Johnson is shooting just 40.2-percent from the floor, and just 30.2-percent from beyond the arc. No, those numbers aren't great. But when one looks a little deeper and examines his effective field-goal-percentage – and advanced statistic which gives more weight to three-point buckets because of their inflated impact on the scoreboard – it jumps all the way 50.3-percent.
Beyond that, however, he's figuring out how to take care of the basketball. Kansas is averaging an alarming 15 turnovers per game, but lately Johnson has been a veritable Fort Knox at times in the face of that carelessness.
He opened the season versus Towson with an eight assist, zero turnover performance, and in the loss to Kentucky in New York City he dished out four assists to one turnover. After an up-and-down stretch through late November and early December, he's found his form again.
In the Dec. 19 loss to Davidson, he recorded six assists and just one turnover, and in last week's victory over North Dakota he logged seven assists to one turnover. Then came Wednesday's win over K-State, and his 5:0 A/T ratio.
The shots will start to fall at some point. Johnson, much like Teahan, has the green light from Self because of his natural shooting ability. Every player goes through slumps. And if he can continue to play defense and value the basketball as he has, when those threes do start splashing the nets Johnson can help turn the Kansas backcourt into one of the toughest to defend in the Big 12.