The Fall of Cliff Alexander

As a proud graduate of the University of Illinois who was (and still am) sick of watching the school’s basketball program spin its wheels in mediocrity, I was all about Cliff Alexander in the summer and fall of 2013. Illinois head coach John Groce was in on Alexander, a 6’9 man amongst boys at Curie High School. Many already viewed Alexander as a one-and-done college player who seemed destined for the lottery in the 2015 NBA Draft, but a player of that caliber could’ve sparked an Illinois Basketball renaissance and opened the floodgates for other top-level recruits.

Instead, Alexander faked out Illinois fans during his college announcement and revealed that instead of heading to Champaign, he’d be going to Lawrence to play for Bill Self and the Kansas Jayhawks. Who knows if things would’ve played out different for Alexander if he actually put on the Illinois hat and went to Champaign, but it’s hard to imagine things going much worse than they did for him.

Last summer, before Alexander had played a game for Kansas, ESPN’s Chad Ford projected him at No. 3 in his first 2015 mock draft. NUMBER THREE!

Alexander went undrafted after his lone season in Lawrence.

So what the heck happened over this past year?

It’s kind of hard to put a finger on where everything went wrong. Alexander didn’t really stand out at Kansas, but he certainly wasn’t bad and was handled quite strangely by Self. He averaged just 7.1 points and 5.3 rebounds, but he only played 17.6 minutes per game. When you dive deeper into the numbers, it leaves you scratching your head as to why he didn’t play more.

Alexander led the Jayhawks with a 56.6 percent mark from the field, was third in the team in points per 40 minutes and first in rebounds per 40 minutes. He had the best net rating on the team and was tops in Wins Shares per 40 minutes, per Sports-Reference.com. He was also third among rotation regulars in Box Plus/Minus.

But for whatever reason, Self kept Alexander’s minutes limited throughout the year. There were some questions about effort and perhaps Self was trying to send a message to Alexander, but the big man’s overall production painted a picture of a player who should’ve been playing more.

Things only got worse in late February when the school announced that Alexander was going to miss a game because of an issue that could affect his eligibility. Missing that one game turned into missing the rest of the season because of an investigation involving Alexander’s mother and impermissible benefits. (Interestingly enough, Alexander’s Curie High School had to forfeit a Chicago city title in 2014 because the team had a bunch of  ineligible players.)

By this time, Alexander’s draft stock had already plummeted, but there was no chance he was going back to Kansas. So, he declared for the draft. While his draft stocked had dipped, nobody could’ve expected him to go undrafted, even after a pre-draft knee injury. But as name after name that wasn’t “Cliff Alexander” was called on draft night, that possibility became more and more real.

There’s a point in the second round of the draft where it’s better to go undrafted, because then a player has options when it comes to picking a team. Still, it had to be quite the shock to go from being such a highly touted player to not getting picked at all.

Alexander wound up on the Brooklyn Nets’ Summer League team after going undrafted, but he wasn’t all that good in 11 games, shooting just 38 percent from the field and 59 percent from the line. He’s now made his way to a Portland Trail Blazers team stocked with frontcourt players:

The Blazers have Meyers Leonard, Mason Plumlee, Noah Vonleh, Ed Davis and Chris Kaman already in the frontcourt, so Alexander has his work cut out for him in terms of finding a spot in that rotation. There’s no doubt he’s still talented, but he’ll have to develop a more versatile offensive game to make it in the NBA. He was a man amongst boys in high school and against some college teams, but he’s a bit undersized for an NBA power forward, even with a wingspan that’s nearly 7’4.

Once seen as a top five pick, Cliff Alexander is now going to have to scratch and claw to find a spot in the NBA. It’s been a long fall from that day when he picked up that Kansas hat after the Illinois fake-out, so now we’ll see if he can get his career trending back in the right direction.

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