Johnson's star on the rise
(Peter G. Aiken/US PRESSWIRE)
Phog.net
Posted Mar 19, 2012


Six weeks ago, on the road in Columbia, Mo., Elijah Johnson hesitated when presented with a wide-open three-point attempt that could have sent the game into overtime. Sunday in Omaha, with the entire season on the line, there was no such hesitation. Not for a moment. Because for Johnson, second-guessing decisions has become a thing of the past.

It can be really easy to view this season's Kansas Jayhawks as "T-Rob, Tyshawn and the Gang."

That's probably fair, to a degree. Robinson and Taylor are, after all, two of the best at their respective positions in the entire country. They're both first team All-Big 12 selections, Robinson the conference Player of the Year, and likely All-Americans.

Every team has its stars and its supporting cast. It's just the way teams are built, and in no way diminishes the contribution of those role players.

For most of this season, Elijah Johnson has been one of those role players, doing whatever it took to help the Jayhawks establish themselves as one of the best teams in the country. Sometimes that meant scoring. Sometimes it meant dishing out assists, and others it meant manning the point. And it always meant playing strong defense, an area in which the junior from Las Vegas has seen his game take massive strides.

In post-season play, however, Johnson has started to become something else; a player more confident, more comfortable in the spotlight.

A star? Maybe so.

In four post-season games, two in the Big 12 tournament and two in the NCAA tournament, Johnson is averaging 18.5 points - 8.5 above his season average - in 32.8 minute per game. He's doled out 11 assists to five turnovers and, perhaps most importantly, he's found his shot. After shooting 33.3-percent from long range during the season, in the post-season he's hitting his threes at a 48-percent clip.

Johnson's signature performance came Sunday night, in the Jayhawks' thrilling comeback victory over the Purdue Boilermakers - a victory that propelled them into the Sweet 16.

It wasn't just that he scored 18 points on a night when Robinson and Taylor both struggled mightily to get it going on the offensive end. It was the way in which he carried himself that the change was most evident.

Flash back to a month and a half ago, and the Columbia, Mo. edition of the Border War. With the Jayhawks down by three points in the game's final seconds and time for one final play, Johnson found himself wide open at the top of the key - the chance to tie the game resting within his hands. All he had to do was let the ball fly.

Only he didn't. He hesitated. He second-guessed himself, and in that moment of hesitation the Missouri defense slammed shut the window of opportunity, forcing Johnson to throw up a heavily-guarded shot that missed badly.

Game over.

Part of what has made him such an interesting player to follow throughout his career has been his honesty. Rare is the individual capable of honest self-assessment, let alone a budding basketball prodigy.

But candor regarding his abilities has never been Johnson's problem. He arrived at Kansas three years ago with an almost shocking understanding of how much he had to learn about big-time college basketball. Where most five-star prospects enter college believing themselves ready to change the game, Johnson viewed himself as a student. He was content to bide his time behind Sherron Collins, Brady Morningstar, Tyrel Reed and Taylor, soaking up every bit of knowledge he could.

To those who have observed him - as a fan, a member of the media member…whatever - Johnson's attitude and refreshing approach to the sport have made his recent metamorphosis that much more satisfying.

It reached its completion Sunday night in Omaha. With Kansas fighting to keep its season alive, Johnson once again found the ball in his hands, this time with the chance to give the Jayhawks the lead.

Again he was wide open, probably due mostly to the fact that he was a solid five feet beyond the three-point line. Nobody in the arena believed he would take that shot, with three minutes left on the clock and every possession critical.

Except he did. He elevated and unspooled the deep three-pointer - with a grin plastered across his face, as Taylor would later reveal - and watched as it splashed through the net.

No more hesitation. No more second-guessing. The time for that, Johnson said, had passed.

"I was confident in the shot and I took it," he said. "I didn't want to second-guess it. I second-guessed a couple in the first half and I came up with air balls. At halftime we talked as a team. We said no more second-guessing."

It didn't end there. Purdue would regain the lead on the very next possession and, in fact, push it out to three points once again. But Johnson was fearless down the stretch, plucking a loose ball from the ground with little more than a minute remaining and flying up the court, tossing a lob on the break that Taylor grabbed and smashed through the hoop.

With the lead down to one and Purdue trying desperately to soak as much time as possible off the clock before putting up a shot, there was Johnson again - teaming with Taylor to create another turnover, grabbing the ball and racing coast to coast for the layup that gave Kansas the lead and, eventually, the victory.

The Jayhawks have reached the point in the season where anything can happen, as Duke and Missouri can attest. It's a time when one player, one performance, can mean the difference between tournament life and the start of another off-season.

Just a few weeks ago, most Kansas fans probably thought that type of performance would have to come from Robinson or Taylor.

Johnson couldn't have picked a more perfect time to claim a spot at center stage for his own.



Related Stories
Phog Audio: Johnson talks NCSU prep
 -by Phog.net  Mar 20, 2012
Johnson wills Jayhawks to Sweet 16
 -by Phog.net  Mar 18, 2012
Johnson steps up
 -by Phog.net  Mar 17, 2012

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