Just a little over a year ago Cliff Alexander was one of the most promising basketball prospects in the entire world; #3 in ESPN’s Top 150 to be exact. The McDonald’s All-American Chicago product had been considered a 5-star prospect across the board, having been pursued by every top basketball program in the country for years.
At the end of draft night, July 25, 2015, Alexander was officially an undrafted rookie free agent.
What happened to the man ranked only behind Jahlil Okafor and Myles Turner only one year ago? How did such a promising athlete fall from potential #1 overall pick to post-Summer League signing? A lot. A lot happened.
Alexander was a monster for Curie High School & Mac Irvin Fire, his AAU club team. He was 6 feet 9 inches tall, weighed 240 pounds, and had a 7’3″ wingspan; the frame of a true paint bully. Alexander’s game was simple; dominate the paint. That was exactly what he did year after year. This absolute domination is what had college scouts advocating for their program to pursue him like no other. Alexander could do it all in the paint. His superior athleticism had provided him with the ability to be a force on both offense and defense. He would send shots flying on the defensive end, then drop the anvil for a backboard shattering slam on offense.
So where did all that hope and promise go? Well, first it went to the University of Kansas, where Cliff Alexander joined a team of elite NBA prospects. After that? Well, Alexander was met by bigger bodies, and some that were even faster. For the first time in his entire life, Alexander was no longer the biggest, meanest guy on the court. His years of throwing smaller bodies around in the paint were over. His go-to when matched up against a bigger body was to beat him with speed. These college big men had that, too. Bill Self, head coach of Kansas, now requested more out of Alexander. He wanted him to expand his game and beat foes without necessarily doing it in the paint. Self wanted to see some jump shots, slashes, and passes. Alexander underwhelmed. His game was based off of his offensive ability in the paint as an overpowering athlete, and this was becoming less and less of an option for Alexander. He struggled to adapt.
Not far into the season, Alexander was being challenged for minutes by red shirt sophomore Landen Lucas and red shirt junior Jamari Traylor. Neither Lucas nor Traylor had any impressive, dominating features in their game, but they were flexible in their play-styles, something Self had yet to see out of Alexander. But Kansas wasn’t too worried about their 5-star PF not yet finding his way on the NCAA hardwood. Perry Ellis, who would be named First-team All-Big 12 at the end of the season, was having a phenomenal year, holding down the power forward position. Alexander was now not only being buried by his lack of fundamental skills, but by Ellis too.
The majority of Alexander’s minutes were now being seen at the back-up center position. His lack of ability from the perimeter really took away any chance of playing more of the 4, and his lack of history and skill-set at the 5 had him coming off the bench behind Traylor, another product of Chicago. This isn’t to say that a power forward must be a great perimeter player, as we all know that to be false. However, there are other skills that Alexander would need to pick up if he would want to stay a power forward. On the offensive end, Alexander would need a more consistent jump shot and/or a stronger arsenal of post moves. Not only would this outright make him a mid-range or low-post threat, but it would also open up his ability to drive to the basket; a strong, yet limited, ability. On the defensive end Alexander would need to learn how to play better team defense. His blocks and scrappy defensive highlights are great for Youtube videos, but there would be many times where the Jayhawk defense would break down because of a lack in his defensive ability as a team defender. Alexander went from an expected one & done NBA-ready basketball player to a high-potential athletic freak who would need a few more years to refine these newly-requested skills. Then came the scandals.
Alexander wasn’t new to scandals. His high school team had their 2013-2014 season erased from the history books as seven unnamed students were playing with a GPA under 2.0, a violation of the Chicago Public School district’s academic-athletic code. Come February 24, 2015, Alexander was facing ineligibility as a Jayhawk. The scandal altogether was a pretty sad one. Alexander’s family was very tight on money and his mother had taken out a loan from Ludus Capital, a company that works with professional athletes and agents. The investigation was surrounded by a whirlwind of allegations of benefits being given to Alexander and his family, considering they had been in talks with NBA agents at the beginning of his Kansas career, which is, by the way, not a violation in itself. Alexander was under the impression that his mother was tricked into accepting this loan, not understanding that it was a violation of the NCAA’s strict, controversial athlete benefit policy. Alexander was now being held out for the rest of the NCAA Division 1 Basketball season, including the world famous March Madness tournament. This was a series of unfortunate events for Alexander, who was then leaning towards bypassing the one & done in order to work on some of his sore spots. In fear of being ineligible for future seasons with the Kansas Jayhawks, Alexander opted for the NBA Draft.
Despite the underwhelming season and scandal, something that will kill your NBA draft stock, Alexander was still being projected as a late first-rounder. His inability to impress at the NBA Draft Combine is what really killed his chances of being taken around the newly predicted 21-28 range. After a season of red flags from a once promising high school prodigy, Alexander needed to impress at the combine. Those his numbers were pretty good across the board, there was nothing that really stood out. Nothing that would make an NBA staff forget about his last year. His pre-draft workouts were nothing to brag about either, as his weaknesses were not only put to the test, but they were ultimately exposed for all to see.
The GM’s on NBA Draft night would offer Alexander no mercy. 60 players were picked on June 25, not one of them being Cliff Alexander. He wasn’t going to let the dream die here, though. Alexander persevered through the struggles and managed a roster spot on Brooklyn’s Summer League squad, a team desperate for an athletic big. However, the undersized big was let go after averaging only 6 points & 6 rebounds per game. The light for Alexander’s NBA future was dimming quickly. A little less than a month after being left undrafted, Alexander received a contract offer from a young, potential based Portland Trail Blazers team.
Alexander joins a crowded class of young bigs in Portland, where he will have to constantly fight for minutes. This signing is a great fit for Alexander and the Portland Trail Blazers alike. The former Jayhawk will be given opportunities to grow in what is being considered as a development year for Portland, but will also be challenged by various others seeking similar growth & success. For Portland, Alexander is added to the list of young athletes who have incredible potential under a Trail Blazers contract. If anything, he’s going to come into the Moda Center with a play style very similar to another former Jayhawk and former Rip City crowd favorite, Thomas Robinson; explosive athleticism with just about everything else needing some work. Alexander’s NBA future depends solely on how much he improves on those lacking aspects of his game. The sky is the limit for this young man, who might have what it takes to compete with Noah Vonleh for the rights of having the highest potential on the team.
However, if it’s athleticism you want, Alexander will certainly give you that.
Will we see Cliff Alexander evolve into the beast that he was predicted to be less than a year ago? Only time will tell. But if there is one person who knows about overcoming the odds, fighting adversity, and proving the doubters wrong, it’s Alexander’s new teammate and locker room leader; Damian Lillard.