- Chad Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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LAHAINA, Hawaii -- Thomas Robinson might be KU's emotional leader on the floor, but Tuesday night, Kansas guard Elijah Johnson proved Robinson won't have to do it alone every night. Johnson scored 23 points in a 72-56 win over UCLA in the semifinals of the Maui Invitational.
Johnson did just about everything well Tuesday at the Lahaina Civic Center. He was sinking treys, pushing the ball up the floor and getting into the lane at will against UCLA's defense. NBA scouts and KU fans have been waiting for this moment for two years. Johnson came in as a high-flying, five-star, blue-chip recruit. NBA scouts saw a 6-foot-4 athletic guard who had the strength and quickness to get to the basket, and whispered he could be a first-round pick.
But it's been mostly a rocky road for Johnson in Lawrence. He played just 6.6 minutes per game for the Jayhawks as a freshman, and his progress was thwarted a bit the next season when Josh Selby decided to play for Kansas. Between Tyrel Reed, Brady Morningstar and Selby, Johnson got just 13.6 minutes per game as a sophomore.
With Reed and Morningstar graduated and Selby off to the NBA, Johnson finally got his chance. But not before nearly blowing it at the start of the season. Johnson -- along with KU's other starting guard, Tyshawn Taylor -- was suspended by coach Bill Self for the team's exhibition games for violating team rules.
But he was in the starting lineup on opening night and is slowly finding his groove. Johnson struggled mightily early on against Kentucky but is coming off excellent games here in Maui against Georgetown and UCLA. Johnson finally is feeling comfortable being back in the limelight.
"I felt like I needed some reps and a lot of minutes on the floor," he said after the game. "I never played 30 minutes like this and had to stay in the game regardless of what's going on. I felt like I'm just getting in the comfort zone and figuring it out. Finding out what Coach wants us to do and trying to keep the team in control and staying on the court when everyone has to come off. It's given me more confidence. It's making me more comfortable on the floor. Once I get more comfortable, my game just comes more naturally."
A few more observations from Kansas-UCLA:
If Johnson keeps feeling this comfortable, he might be the other first-round pick from the Jayhawks this season. Thomas Robinson (15 points, 10 rebounds versus UCLA) is widely regarded by NBA scouts as a lottery pick. Johnson, especially in a down year for point guards, really could rise with performances such as the one he had Tuesday. "He's got all the physical tools to be a NBA point guard," one NBA GM said. "He's strong, fast, athletic and he can shoot. I felt like Kansas played so much better when he started to get comfortable. If he plays like this all year, he's a first-round pick. No question."
UCLA's Josh Smith gave Kansas fits last season in Lawrence. This season, he was a complete nonfactor. He played just 13 minutes because of foul trouble, scored one point and grabbed one rebound. Many NBA scouts came into the season believing Smith could be a lottery pick. After two lackluster performances in Maui, they are souring quickly. Smith clearly is way heavier than his listed weight of 305 pounds. Coach Ben Howland said the doubling and foul trouble gave Smith fits Tuesday night. But when asked whether conditioning was also an issue, his reply was pretty curt: "It's evident." Look, Smith has talent. He has great hands, moves well for a big man and can knock people around in the paint. But his lack of conditioning and focus are pretty alarming. UCLA played better when he wasn't in the game, and until he gets into shape and starts playing hard, he can forget about the NBA.
KU's win Tuesday sets up a dream matchup of Kansas-Duke on Wednesday night. Self told reporters after the game that the Jayhawks came to Maui to play Duke. Well, they've got their wish. And with a ton of rabid Duke and Kansas fans packed into this tiny gym, the place is going to be rocking. "I think it could be as good an atmosphere as there's ever been here," Self said. "It could be better than NCAA tournament atmosphere because you can feel the crowd. I think it could be second to none in the history of the tournament." Taylor agreed: "When you come to Kansas, you sign up for this."
Duke should be the favorite to win this thing. The Blue Devils have more talent and considerably more depth. NBA scouts will be focusing on the Mason Plumlee-Thomas Robinson matchup, but the key to the game probably will be how well Taylor and Johnson fare against Duke's Seth Curry, Austin Rivers and Andre Dawkins. Should be a great game.