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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Scouting Report: Elijah Johnson

Height: 6'4''
Weight: 195lb
Bday: Unknown

Team: Kansas
Class of 2013

Ever since stepping Elijah Johnson stepped onto campus as a Jayhawk, he has shown tremendous patience. He has been forced to sit behind Tyshawn Taylor, who arrived on campus one year before who to claim the point guard spot, and play a more complimentary role off the ball. In return, scouts have been patience with Johnson's game. Entering his senior year, scouts still have hope that Johnson can prove he can run the point now that Tyshawn Taylor has moved on to the NBA.

Elijah Johnson hasn't been riding the bench all this time, though. No, he was the starting shooting guard last year on the team that lost to Kentucky in the championship. He played a key role in the tournament, averaging double figures in the scoring column each game and prompting Bill Self to call him "their best player the last two weeks" around the same time.

Self had been waiting for Johnson to exert himself all season. By exert, I am not talking about just shooting the ball more. Johnson took plenty of threes. But Johnson rarely looked to take the ball to the basket and be aggressive. If that trend continues with Taylor gone, you can say goodbye to Johnson's stock, but his rise in the NCAA tournament provides hope.

Last year, Johnson struggled to start the season. In the first 24 games, he shot 36-131 (27%) from the 3-pt line. Every player goes in slumps, but Johnson continued to settle for that jumpshot. 131 shots in 24 games equates to him taking over 5 three pointers a game! This was when he couldn't buy a basket. If there was any time that Johnson finally started taking advantage of his physical tools, it should have been then. His lack of consciousness when taking threes mixed with his lack of confidence driving to the hoop is a bad combination.

Johnson is a good jump shooter and his jumper did start falling. He is very comfortable spotting up and doesn't hesitate to simply catch and shoot. Kansas likes to center their offense away from the corners and Johnson has problem taking the 3 from the top of the perimeter. He has good range and solid form. The problem is the amount of threes he takes and the fact that he never tries to get a better shot. He took a ridiculous amount of 3-pt shots with 20+ seconds remaining on the shot clock last year. Self had to yank him out quite a few times due to this trend. The big key for Johnson's game is he needs to stop settling. He has great athleticism yet acts like an nonathletic, stationary shooter 95% of the time.

Johnson has always been intriguing because of his physical abilities. High school recruiters were having the same discussions about Johnson 4 years ago that we are having today. He never owned the point guard position there either. But his body and explosiveness are exactly what are desired in NBA point guards. Johnson is listed at 6'4'' and 195lbs. He has long arms and is capable of guarding both PGs and 2-guards. He has good strength and is a very explosive leaper around the basket. He also has an explosive, long first stride and is very fast in the open court. He just needs to put these tools together and show them off more often.

Johnson lacks savvy. He is a very easy player to figure out at this stage. He is primarily a three point shooter who rarely looks to drive. For his ability and role in the Jayhawks offense, averaging 1.4 free throws per 40 minutes (adjusted for team pace) is beyond terrible. One could get a free throw a game at the end of the game going to the line or get accidentally fouled off the ball. Or fouled in transition - its not hard. The fact is, Johnson never drives. The only time he is getting to the hoop is in a transition opportunity.

Part of the problem appears to be his poise and confidence with the ball in his hands. He is always looking to get rid of it like its a hot potato whether it is a quick jumper or pass. Because of this, Johnson is actually a great ball mover - one of those guys who passes it around the perimeter and makes the "extra pass" to find a man open for three. But that isn't a result of him creating anything. Just another instance of him acting like a non-athletic shooter.

When Johnson gets a pick and roll opportunity, nothing ever comes from it. Johnson looks to get rid of the ball as soon as the help defender comes out to hedge on the screen. He will either pick up his dribble by instinct or flip a quick pass to the nearest teammate. His lack of ability to do ANYTHING on the pick and roll is a bad indicator for his NBA future. It is not like he is just being unselfish, Johnson has clearly developed a habit where his first reaction at the sign of pressure is to pick up his dribble. That won't be easy to break. In a perfect world, Johnson's speed would be devastating to defenders, and he has shown that in a select instances. Combined with his jumper, he could be a dual threat in these situations. But I don't think Johnson is close to becoming consistent in this area.

The good thing about Johnson's passing is he is willing to make the easy pass. Like I said, he swings the ball to the open man and did a good job getting Thomas Robinson touches in the post. He was able to average 4.3 assist per 40 minutes mainly because of those situation. He also did a good job in transition, including a clutch full court pass at the end of a game to Tyshawn Taylor. When Elijah Johnson did get into the paint, he tends to look for a big man to lob it to. Every single year Johnson's assist numbers have slipped. That should change his senior year due to his new role, but he needs to really change the way he achieves his assists.

Overall, Johnson's offense is strictly east and west to use a football term. Everything goes around the perimeter and nothing towards the basket.  His handles aren't as bad as his number make it seem, his poise under pressure and aggression are bigger problems for him.

We will have a chance to see Johnson run point all year and he could completely damage his stock under the spotlight. Or his combination of speed, size, and shooting could get him into the first round. Or both. He is getting first round mentions already while I still believe he is a long shot. He has way too many holes in his game. Johnson's worst fear would be if Ben McLemore took over the point guard spot and subsequently ruins Elijah's dreams of a NBA career.

Right now, Johnson may project better as a shooting guard. He still wouldn't be NBA quality and doesn't have as high of a ceiling there (which is why nobody projects him to play the 2), but his ability to space the floor with both his jumper and understanding of spacing on the offensive end make him a decent off guard. 

In 2011, Tyshawn Taylor missed two big 12 games and Johnson started at point guard in his place. Johnson only had 4 assists in those 2 games while scoring 20 points. 18 of those points came from 3-pt shots. After the first game, Johnson saw his minutes reduced by Mario Little, a marginal player at best.

All this negative talk about Johnson and we haven't even gotten to his defense. Johnson actually has a solid reputation on defense and has great tools, but once again, he is unable to fully take advantage of them. By zeroing in on him completely, Johnson doesn't look like an elite defender at all. In fact, his off ball defense can be quite comical. He seems to space out for a second at a time and lose his man, resulting in him frantically searching for him. He reacts very slowly and thinks way too much on defense. He has a terrible understanding of angles and defensive positioning. For some reason Johnson shades the 3-pt line instead of the paint, making him easy to cut against or drive by. Because of this, the one thing he does well is take away 3s. That would be effective if he was playing against other Elijah Johnson clones. His man to man defense is better than his off ball defense but his lack of awareness still shines through. His lack of defensive IQ really puts a damper on what appears at first glance to be a high defensive ceiling.

Character wise, Johnson seems to be a good kid and interviews well. Johnson has always been described as someone who looks out for others and his patience playing behind Tyshawn Taylor is a testament to his character within itself. While his hometown is listed as Las Vegas, Johnson grew up in the rough neighborhoods of Gary, Indiana and still has a quiet toughness to him. He is a mature kid and has been coached by his father in his youth. His godfather is LaTroy Hawkins, longtime MLB reliever.  There are no questions with his energy or work ethic. He shows plenty of passion on the court.

This is a make or break year for Johnson. The excuse of him not showing his talents because of Tyshawn Taylor's presence no longer exist. Johnson knows this too. Kansas should be very good and he is going to be looked upon as their go-to scorer. After 3 years of mediocrity, Johnson still has every chance to prove himself. Him and his fans amongst NBA scouts have shown patience, now it is time for results.

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