About a year ago, Cliff Alexander sat at a table at Curie High School in Chicago ready to announce where he would attend college. The consensus five-star power forward was choosing between a local school, Illinois, and a classic college basketball blue blood in Kansas. His recruitment had felt like a circus for months, and no one could really get a read on how he was leaning.
With cameras flashing, Alexander momentarily picked up the Illinois hat in front of him before placing it down and putting on the Jayhawks hat. It was a torturous moment for an Illini fan base that had endured too many recruiting misses in its own backyard. The ensuing viral videos were either hilarious or gut-wrenching, depending on your point of view.
While Alexander made himself a few enemies with the stunt, it was impossible for any objective party to argue with the decision. Bill Self had helped produce 12 first-round picks in 12 years at Kansas, including big men like Thomas Robinson, Cole Aldrich, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris and Joel Embiid. Alexander was ranked as the No. 3 player in the class of 2014 by ESPN and seemed to have the pedigree to follow in that proud lineage.
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Four months into his college career, it's become clear that Alexander's time at Kansas isn't playing out the way many expected it to. Alexander was supposed to be one of the most physically imposing players in the country as a freshman, creating poster dunks and highlight-reel blocks before skipping off to the NBA. Instead, he's buried on the bench and it doesn't seem like the situation is going to change anytime soon.
Kansas lost to West Virginia on Monday in a game that had to serve as the low point of Alexander's brief tenure with the Jayhawks. He only played six minutes on the night and didn't get in the game in the second half. Maybe West Virginia's hectic press made Self think he needed more ball-handling on the court. Maybe Alexander made a mistake in his few minutes of playing time that forced Self's hand. At this point, the speculation is futile because all of this has become a trend.
In Kansas' three Big 12 losses, Alexander has played a combined six second-half minutes. He's sixth on the team in minutes per game. Self would rather go with junior Jamari Traylor or even sophomore Landen Lucas next to Perry Ellis when times get tough. The only problem is that Alexander is outproducing both of them whenever he's on the court. Here's the per-36 minutes numbers:
|Points||Rebounds||Blocks||True shooting percentage|
That would seem to paint Alexander as Kansas' most complete big man, but against West Virginia, Traylor got 26 minutes and Lucas got 17 while the freshman was stuck to the bench. West Virginia finished with 22 offensive rebounds to 11 for Kansas, and Juwan Staten cut through the lane on the Mountaineers' final possession to score the game-winning layup. These would appear to be things Cliff Alexander could have helped fix.
The numbers from Synergy Sports paint a similar picture. Alexander is scoring 1.026 points per possession, which the site classifies as "excellent" and in the 88th percentile of the country. Traylor is in the 27th percentile by scoring 0.738 points per possession, while Lucas is in the 25th percentile by scoring .731.
Per KenPom, Alexander is posting an offensive rebound rate of 13.2, which ranks No. 57 in the country. Ellis is at 9.4, Traylor is at 9.0 and Lucas comes in at 13.7 in limited minutes.
The individual defensive numbers at Synergy mark both Traylor and Lucas as better individual defenders in terms of points per possession allowed (Alexander: .793, Traylor: .65, Lucas: .758), but Alexander laps both in block rate. It's true that Alexander has been prone to mental errors defensively, but Self has refused to let him play through them.
This became apparent in a loss at Iowa State on Jan. 17. Alexander failed to close out on a three-pointer by Dustin Hogue of the Cyclones and was pulled immediately, never to play again.
Self has consistently said Alexander's motor is the issue, though his rebound rate, block rate and ability to finish through traffic don't make him look like a player who is coasting. He's also been instrumental in a few Kansas victories, like when he made key plays down the stretch in a tight win over Oklahoma.
He's produced his fair share of highlights, too:
Unfortunately for Alexander, it hasn't been enough to change Self's mind. Kansas is still in the pole position to win the Big 12 for the 11th straight year, but it's hard to think the Jayhawks have enough for a deep run in March if Self continues to play inferior players over Alexander.
What's truly bizarre is that Self is one of the best coaches in the country by any metric, both in terms of domination at the college level and in preparing his players for the NBA. There are too many success stories to ignore. For whatever reason, he just seems to have a problem with Alexander.
That brings us to Alexander's decision for next year.
Inconsistent minutes haven't hurt Alexander's pro stock too much. He's still No. 17 on Draft Express' big board. If that's the consensus at the end of the season, he'll probably turn pro. If he's going to ride the bench, he might as well get paid to do it. It's all just sort of unfortunate because Alexander is still a raw player with a skill set that doesn't really fit the way the NBA is going. He could use the extra time to develop under a coach as good as Bill Self, but why should he continue to wait around when Self won't play him?
It's easy to imagine Alexander becoming an All-American if he stays in Lawrence another season. At 6'9, 250 pounds and with a 7'3 wingspan, he's big and strong and has NBA athleticism. The problem is that NBA teams want stretch power forwards now, and that isn't Alexander's game. He's a power player. Ideally, he develops his jump shot out to mid-range and makes a name for himself in the pros as a rebounding and rim-protecting power forward. That's a rare archetype in the NBA and the type of player that could conceivably have a long career.
If Bill Self won't play him as prized recruit, though, why would an NBA coach? There are plenty of coaches around the league who have no time for developing young talent. It's easy to envision a trip to the D-League if he has a hard time convincing an NBA coach he deserves a real shot.
Given Self's track record with big men, Kansas should have been the perfect school for Alexander. Now some are wondering why he didn't just go to Illinois. He wouldn't be pulled in and out of the lineup in Champaign, at least.
It's a messy situation with no easy answers. Self is too good of a coach to think he's intentionally sabotaging Alexander (and his team) without good reason. Alexander isn't a flawless player, but he's a major talent who should be a big-time contributor at the college level. There's still four weeks until Selection Sunday, so maybe this will work itself out. At the moment, though, it seems like Kansas and Cliff Alexander just aren't a match.