In the first of three position previews, Jayhawk Slant decided to start with what many consider to be the most important position, the job of running the point.
Bill Self and the Kansas Jayhawks return a majority of the national runner-up team from a year ago, but still must find a way to fill the void of its two best players, Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson.
While Self doesn't always have a specific, designated point guard-instead opting for two ball--handlers in the backcourt -- Tyshawn Taylor was the conductor of KU's attack last year. Taylor was not only the main offensive threat in the backcourt, he was responsible for winning many of KU's close games last year.
This season, the reigns have been handed over to another explosive athlete that has proven he can lead the Jayhawks to the postseason.
Elijah Johnson: Senior, 6-foot-4, 195-pounds
Making up for such an important loss in Taylor will be tough to do, but after his performance in the NCAA tournament last year and his obvious growth as a leader both on and off the court throughout the summer, Elijah Johnson is ready to replace his former cohort as the floor general for Self and the Jayhawks.
You can't take much away from a Midnight Madness scrimmage, after all, it's a glorified pick-up game designed to entertain fans ready for basketball season to begin. Still, Johnson looked as good as advertised, leading the way for the crimson team, knocking down three perimeter shots and driving to the basket for an easy lay-in.
His post-Late Night interview where he spoke of his effort to help along a young player like Rio Adams, who is going through his share of freshman struggles, signifies his readiness for leadership, something which is of the utmost importance to Bill Self.
Johnson came into KU known for his athleticism and ability to score, but over his first three seasons, he has become a much more balanced player capable of defending, scoring, and providing the intangibles to help his team win.
At the collegiate level, he likely fits more into an off-guard role, but his experience and the type of system Kansas runs allows him to be a point guard and the player responsible for initiating offense. During his junior campaign, Johnson proved he can score as well as any guard in the country. Against North Carolina, Johnson hit possibly the most important shot of the game, knocking down a three late in the second half.
While Self will mostly rely on Johnson to lead his teammates, he will most certainly need help.
KU has plenty of depth, albeit young and inexperienced, but the core group of players returns for another run at a title. The Jayhawks will need to get production from at least two younger players if they are to make a run in March, and when trying to pick out weaknesses, the first place many will look is Johnson's backups.
Naadir Tharpe: Sophomore, 5-foot-11, 170-pounds
Last season, Johnson was typically backing up Taylor, which meant the drop off wasn't significant. This year however, sophomore Naadir Tharpe and freshman Anrio Adams will need to step up when called upon.
Tharpe, a second year player most often compared to former Jayhawk Russell Robinson, hasn't yet had the opportunity to make a significant impact at Kansas. When inserted into the game, Tharpe has shown flashes but typically struggles to maintain the same flow.
The 5-foot-11, 170-pound guard is an average outside shooter and has a decent first step with the ability to finish in the lane.
Tharpe will never be asked to be a scorer, but more of a facilitator, capable of finding his teammates for open looks and getting the offense into a flow. With Bill Self, defense will always earn playing time at the guard position. Tharpe is improving on the defensive side of the court, but needs to continue to work on his lateral quickness in order to keep his man in front of him.
Playing time will almost certainly increase for Tharpe compared to his freshman year with a much greater need for a solid backup point guard.
Rio Adams: Freshman, 6-foot-3, 190-pounds
Rio Adams comes in as more of an unknown.
A freshman from Seattle, Wash., Adams has plenty of raw talent and is an above average athlete. Where he needs significant improvement is his awareness and control. During exhibition play in Europe, Adams had a propensity for turnovers and sloppy play, often looking like a player still trying to compete on the AAU circuit.
In a more controlled environment where discipline is needed, Adams can get lost. The majority of that is due to his lack of experience and being a first year player. Without a doubt the talent is there.
There are plenty of scorers on the court for the Jayhawks, which means the likes Tharpe, Adams will need to focus most of their energy on the defensive side of the ball and making sure teammates are in the right spots and the passes are being made when open looks are available.
Adams most certainly can score, and in the open court off turnovers or in a fast-break, the 6-foot-3 guard will thrive because of his quickness and ability to finish at the rim.
During Late Night in the Phog, Adams made several good passes to open teammates under the basket instead of forcing a contested lay-up.
Replacing Taylor won't be easy, and he may be the one player Kansas fans miss the most early on in the season as this team finds its identity after losing its two best players, but Bill Self has options with Johnson, Tharpe, and Adams.
As Johnson's backups, the aforementioned underclassman will be asked to avoid mistakes and simply run an efficient offense while also competing on the defensive end. If they can accomplish that, the Jayhawks should have no problem at the point guard spot.
Niko Roberts: Junior, 5-foot-11, 175-pounds
Niko Roberts, the son of now current assistant coach Norm Roberts, is a junior reserve used in late game situations when the score is typically heavily in favor of Kansas. His knowledge of the system could be useful should injuries become a problem, however, his impact on the program in on the practice floor in helping prepare the regular rotation players for game-action.
Tyler Self: Freshman, 6-foot-2, 165-pounds
Just as Roberts serves as excellent prep for the rotation players, Tyler Self, son of the head coach, will do the same. His ability to help prepare his teammates for the grind of the season and to be competitive in practice will be his biggest impact on the program. His presence in the program has also become a source of rejuvenation for Bill Self.