After a loss to Oklahoma State on Feb. 2, Kansas coach Bill Self famously said that the Jayhawks didn’t possess a point guard on their roster.
It was shot at the less-than-stellar play of Elijah Johnson.
“We don’t have a point guard,” Self told the Topeka Capital-Journal after the game. “It’s sad. […] We were definitely a better team with (Johnson) sitting down next to us and putting somebody else in the game.”
That was building up all season for Self and Johnson. The senior had had decent games, but seemed to lack the basketball IQ to play the point for the Jayhawks. It didn’t get any better for a few games after that. In fact, it got worse. Johnson registered no more than four assists in the next six games and at least four fouls or three turnovers in at least five of those games.
But then came the Iowa State game and the monster 39-point, seven-assist effort that almost single-handedly pulled Kansas up and out with a win in Hilton Coliseum. Although Johnson’s game-finishing slam dunk was frowned upon (and booed upon) by fans and some media members alike, it almost seemed cathartic for Johnson, who had struggled to live up to Self’s expectations.
Without much publicity, he’s only become more of a point guard over the last two games for Self and Kansas.
In the Jayhawks’ 79-42 blowout home win over Texas Tech on Monday night, Johnson went for just seven points, but dished out 12 assists with only two turnovers and no fouls. The game comes after a 10-assist night in the team’s 91-65 rout of West Virginia on Saturday.
It’s Johnson’s first back-to-back assist games of the season and third overall this year.
The senior’s reputation has never been as a facilitator. Partly because he hasn’t had to be and partly because that’s not his game. But recently, albeit against two far inferior teams, Johnson has evolved into that role. He’s averaging 4.7 assists per game this year.
But even with that in perspective, it’s progress. With Jeff Withey proving to be one of the better low-post finishers in the nation and Ben McLemore cementing himself more and more as an NBA Draft Lottery pick in June, there’s room for Johnson to play the floor general role and defer the points to his teammates.
Looking back, Johnson is at his best in some big games when passing more this season. He had nine assists in wins over potential NCAA Tournament teams St. Louis, Temple and Belmont, along with a 10-assist game in a home overtime win over Iowa State.
So maybe he’s not Michael Carter-Williams, but Johnson doesn’t have to be. But heading into the Big Dance with Kansas as a prime candidate for a no. 1 seed, Johnson becoming somewhat of a distributor might be the role he best fits to keep the Jayhawks in line with their own expectations: A deep run into March and possibly April.
Follow David Harten on Twitter at @David_Harten