Putting Himself in an Enviable Position
By Rob Fernas
Times Staff Writer

Not Long Ago, Kennedy High Graduate Jelani Janisse Was an Unknown Post Player. Now He Has a Scholarship to Play Point Guard at Kansas.

Jelani Janisse's transformation from unwanted forward to sought-after point guard provides a hopeful message to toiling gym rats everywhere.

To wit: It's never too late.
Janisse played his senior basketball season at Kennedy High in 1994-95 without attracting so much as a nibble of interest from major colleges. Two years later, he reeled in a whopper - signing a letter of intent with Kansas, a preseason top-five school and No. 1 for most of last season. "I'm living a dream," Janisse said this week.

So, what in the name of Dr. Naismith happened?
Janisse was academically qualified to attend a Division I school out of Kennedy. He hasn't grown significantly in two years. His statistics - a modest 12 points and seven assists a game last season at L.A. City College - were comparable but not better than his high school numbers. Yet Janisse may as well have changed identities considering the way colleges came calling after he led L.A. City (30-6) to the state championship in March.

Pepperdine, Brigham Young, Loyola Marymount and Oregon are among the jilted suitors. Any one of them could have signed Janisse in high school, but as Kansas Coach Roy Williams pointed out: "Sixe-foot-three centers aren't very marketable." After playing in the post for most of his three-year varsity career at Kennedy, Janisse switched to swingman as a freshman at L.A. City and changed positions again before last season, when Coach Mike Miller asked him to play point guard. Janisse was thrilled by the request.

"That's what I always wanted to play," he said. "I worked with Coach Miller for 1 1/2 hours everyday [last summer] to get my dribbling, shooting and passing skills down. Once I did that, I started coming along."

Janisse's play at point guard improved steadily last season, culminating with a terrific performance in the eight-team state tournament at San Jose State. His two free throws with 12 seconds to play clinched a 67-62 victory over San Jose City College in the title game and helped earn him the tournament's most valuable player award.

At 6-3 1/2 and 210 pounds, Janisse brings a physical presence to a position often played by smaller guards. Although not a perimeter scoring threat - he took only two three-point shots last season - Janisse excels in virtually every other skill and is considered a defensive terror. "If he's your fifth option offensively, you have a great team, because he can guard anyone," Miller said.

Janisse's strengths make him an ideal complement to Ryan Robertson, Kansas most experienced point guard. Robertson, who like Janisse will be a junior, probably has an edge to win the starting job based on his 10-0 record as a starter last season when Jacque Vaughn was injured. But while Robertson is a good shooter, he doesn't measure up to Janisse defensively, Williams said.

"I think with both of these youngsters, we have the point guard spot covered the way we want it to be covered," William said. Janisse will be the first junior college transfer to play for Kansas since Darren Hancock in 1993 and only the fifth JC player signed by Williams in his nine years as coach. The Jayhawks began recruiting Janisse in April after their point guard of choice, Baron Davis of Santa Monica Crossroads, signed with UCLA.

Holding out for Davis cost Kansas two other high school guards - including in-state star Earl Watson, who committed to UCLA during the early signing period in November - but Williams make it clear he doesn't consider Janisse a consolation prize.

"We're extremely happy," Williams said. "[Janisse] is going to do some things that will help our team. We've been really impressed with all our dealings with him." Courteous and confident, Janisse relishes the opportunity to play on a national championship contender that includes two probable NBA players - senior center Raef LaFrentz and junior forward Paul Pierce.

LaFrentze and Pierce announced they would return to Kansas instead of making themselves available for the NBA draft during Janisse's recruiting visit to the school in May. "From not being highly recruited out of high school, to signing with Kansas - one of the top three basketball schools in the nation - gives me a sense of accomplishment," Janisse said. "I worked hard to get to this point. Now I'm glad I got here. [But] the hard work is not finished."

Janisse has maintained a workmanlike regimen for several years. In high school, he awoke at 6 a.m. in order to catch the bus near his South Los Angeles home for the daily ride to Kennedy in Granada Hills. Normally during basketball season he wouldn't return home until after 7 p.m., when he would have to do chores and homework. "It was pretty strict," Janisse said. "I'm used to long days."

Since school ended, Janisse has kept busy by working five days a week in a downtown law firm. He earned an Associate of Arts degree in liberal arts at L.A. City. "I thought he had potential but at the same time he wasn't one of these kids who could step right into a Division I program," said Yutaka Shimizu, Janisse's coach at Kennedy. "I knew he would need some time to mature."

Did Shimizu ever think Janisse would play for school like Kansas?
"I'm happy for him - and surprised," he said. "But I knew the kid should go somewhere because he was such a hard worker. He always had a good attitude and he wanted to be a good player."

With only small four-year schools interested in him, Janisse decided to attend L.A. City College. In five seasons, Miller, 32, has coached the Cubs to a 132-36 record, four consecutive conference titles, one state championship and has sent 21 players to Division I programs.

"I recruited Jelani with the promise that if he came to L.A. City, he would be guaranteed a Division I scholarship after two years," Miller said. Yet Miller admits that Kansas isn't the place he originally envisioned for Janisse.

"He had to have the right kind of character for this to happen," Miller said. "It takes a lot of development over that two-year period. It didn't happen overnight. The steadiness of [Janisse's] personality mirrors the steadiness of his improvement." Janisse has every intention to keep improving once he becomes a Jayhawk.

"I can say I did pretty well in my first year playing point guard," he said. "I can just imagine how much better I can become."