Coming out of high school, Elijah Johnson was known as a high flyer with a raw overall game. In his second year at Kansas, the sophomore guard is a changed player, both in his mental and physical approach to the game. Jayhawk Slant talked with him at KU's Media Day.
Grabbing his nametag off the seat of his chair, Elijah Johnson sat down in his new uniform just released by Kansas, made with the latest Adidas technology. He looked proud to be wearing the new threads, and proud to be starting his second media day as a member of the Kansas Jayhawks basketball program.
"They're sweet, I like them," he said with a smile. "I haven't had the chance to really run around in them yet, just took some pictures with you all today. From the feeling of it though, it feels like I'm walking around with not shirt on, so that could be a good thing. It feels like I've got my chest out; some people might get dunked on this year."
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Before the general Kansas fan knew who he was, Johnson was getting thousands of hits on YouTube.com for his highlight-reel dunks.
Often, being able to dunk is mistaken for being able to dominate on the offensive end.
While he certainly has the potential to be a dominant player at the collegiate level, Johnson experienced the majority of his freshman year at Kansas from the bench. The game was drastically different from high school, and as a wide-eyed freshman playing behind experienced and talented guards, the 6-foot-4 Las Vegas-native needed to learn a few things.
"It's a little different; I understand what's going on now. Last year I kind of walked in with a little nervousness but this year, it's refreshing to be back in the [Allen] Fieldhouse and to have people back in the Fieldhouse with us; with the season being close and Late Night only a few days away," Johnson said Tuesday afternoon at media day.
Most of his teammates were asked about whether or not the disappointment from last year still resonated amongst them, but Johnson was quick to say that what happened last year is better served as a lesson for the future.
"Our disappointment from last year is out of reach now. As much as I felt like I could do something about last year, I didn't fully understand step by step on the court what it takes, but now I sit back and know I had to experience that loss," he said. "I learned way more than I would have had we won the national championship because everything coach preached to us about when we shake our head and nod our head but we don't feel like hearing it, like when your parents tell you the same thing over and over and they know what they're talking about, you don't want t listen and find out the hard way. He always said it would come down to one play so this year I'm just preparing myself for that one play."
"Honestly that's what this whole year is about; preparing myself for that one play because it's going to come and all of the Big 12 championship and all of that stuff from last year is in the past. We are going to be in the tournament and might be in the championship with 1.2 seconds left and it might be that one play and we're going to be ready. I've seen it firsthand last year sitting on the bench how we weren't ready for it so this year I just hope to be ready and to have my team ready."
After the experience of a full season becomes a reflection, players like Johnson are able to understand the difference between perception and reality. Coming in, the perception was that what he had been doing throughout his basketball career prior to college would translate and allow him to be as good against a higher level of competition.
Now, after taking the time to look back and assess his first season, Johnson realized that what he had been doing, and the mindset he had when it came to the game of basketball just wasn't cutting it, and at Kansas, if you don't take it to the next level, you'll quickly be left behind.
"My scouting report, my report on myself has always been this lazy, laid back player and I actually thought it was, not cool but so comfortable that I didn't have a problem with doing it. Lately I've just been trying to get a spark under my butt to make me move faster and to just do the stuff that I really don't want to do and just stop being so lazy…maybe not lazy but I just like to do things in a casual way," Johnson said.
"I understand that I can't play that way and drive 60 miles per hour at Kansas because here, they like to do 200 [mph], so if I'm going to do it, I've got to do it with them and not be left behind. That was basically all it was this summer, just trying to do the stuff that I don't like doing and just to motivate myself to do something different this year."
Along with his teammates, Johnson put in plenty of extra work in the weight room to prepare himself for the rigors of a long season. Despite playing on the perimeter, strength is always a key ingredient to success, especially in Division 1 basketball. Johnson forced himself to work harder, knowing full well that if he wants to reach his potential, training during the offseason is a must.
"I definitely got a lot stronger. I'm listed 6-foot-4; I think they've got me at 195 pounds. I'm actually closer to 198 but I can drop the weight it's just that I've gotten so much bigger and I feel like I'm just so much stronger because now even when I do drop the weight, I'm much lighter on my feet but I'm just as strong, like a bulldozer coming through, so I can knock someone over when I need to. I feel like instead of being a freshman that you can push around, now I'll be the sophomore pushing seniors around."
A question mark for Kansas heading into the season is leadership and which of the returning players can take over for the departed Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich, who are now in the NBA. In terms of media attention, Marcus Morris seems to be the player who has been anointed as the leader and face of the program, however, a quieter and eerily familiar teammate of Morris has made a tremendous impact on Johnson.
"Honestly, that role belongs to Marcus Morris, but if there was one person on this team that I look up to, when he says his words, that's means a lot because he doesn't use too many words so the three or four words he uses, he means it, that would be Markieff Morris. He speaks from the heart and he doesn't say stuff unless it's serious, so if he says it, then it's necessary. "
"I was in the weight room getting stronger, I was benching at a level I had never benched at and I was settling, I was happy and he looked at me and said, "why are you getting so happy? You could have done that weight last year, you need to step it up and don't let up now." That stuck with me and he was right. I shot up 15 pounds more. Keifs words mean a lot to me. Whatever he says to me, that can predict my whole demeanor on the floor, whether I'm moving too fast or I'm too emotional, he notices it all so I take his words in."
From his first summer to now, Elijah Johnson has grown up. He's a savvy young player with a world of potential that Bill Self even admitted that he doesn't quite know how to assess yet. Johnson will get his chance, but it may still be from coming off the bench and playing a more limited role. All of that is still to be determined, but one thing is for sure, whatever way Johnson can help the team is the way best suited for him.
Many believe being a starter is a sign of your talent level; the starters are better than the reserves, but if a Self coached Kansas team has proven anything, it's that starting isn't everything and his reserves can often have a larger impact on the game than his starters.
"I can't look at you and say it wouldn't mean the world to start at Kansas. I mean, who doesn't want to start at Kansas? Whose goal wouldn't be to start at Kansas? I feel like you've got to look at different goals. Everybody looks at that goal, but I've got bigger goals like possibly being the first person off the bench if I have to, being the person to change the game every time I come in, being the person to keep the temp every time I come in, that's more important to me than starting. I'd rather be a senior here and not start than to start and not be as successful as I would be coming off the bench. It's about what card I'm dealt, what situation fits best for me."
With the season just around the corner, plenty of time will pass before the rotation of this team is known, but if Johnson's demeanor, work ethic, and approach as a sophomore is any indication, you can bet he will make his way on the court for significant minutes and will make an important impact on the game.