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How Cliff Alexander went from basketball prodigy to NBA project

Cliff Alexander was a top-five recruit that fell off the basketball map after a disastrous year at Kansas. Now, he's trying to walk a different path to NBA success.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Cliff Alexander was surrounded by his closest friends and family at Society Night Club on the near west side of Chicago for what was supposed to be the happiest day of his life. It was a warm June night Alexander had mentally circled four years ago when he began his rise to basketball stardom at the high school level. It was, at long last, finally time for the 2015 NBA Draft.

This was the night Alexander would give his family the type of life they could once only fantasize about. It was an opportunity to find out which team believed in what he was and what he could one day become. Best of all, it was a chance at a clean slate after a single season in college defined first by inconsistency and later by controversy.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver and then deputy commissioner Mark Tatum took to a stage in New York to read off 60 names. As Alexander waited more than three hours, the party slowly dissipated. That's when reality set in. His name wasn't going to be called.

"It blindsided me," Alexander told SB Nation. "I was disappointed, but I always play with a chip on my shoulder. Now I'm playing with a bunch of chips on my shoulder."

Just one year before, Alexander was a top-five recruit, ranked ahead of top draft picks Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell by every major scouting service. Since began covering basketball in 2004, Tennessee's Scotty Hopson has been the only other top-five recruit to go undrafted.

A downfall this swift would be enough to crush the spirit of most 19-year-olds, but at this point overcoming setbacks feels like the only thing Alexander knows. After everything he went through to get here, going undrafted is just another detour, not the end of the road.

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Alexander grew up with three siblings in West Garfield Park, a neighborhood reported to have the highest homicide rate and lowest life expectancy in Chicago. His mother Latilla raised the family mostly by herself while working at the grocery store Jewel as his father served a 57-month prison sentence that spanned Alexander's first few years of high school.

Alexander was ranked ahead of top draft picks Karl-Anthony Towns and D'Angelo Russell by every major scouting service.

But in those early days, Alexander looked nothing like a future basketball prodigy. He had only started playing the game in eighth grade. With so many talented players pipelining through Chicago public schools, Alexander wasn't even on the map locally when he arrived at Curie High. As Curie coach Mike Oliver recalls, Alexander had to build his game from scratch.

"Cliff wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth," Oliver said. "He probably wasn't even the best player on his grammar school team. He worked for everything he got."

Alexander began his rise to prominence the summer after his freshman year, playing under Oliver on adidas' AAU circuit for Team D. Rose. He would often play up to three basketball games in the morning, then be out on the football field at night. Playing defensive end helped him lose baby fat, gain strength and get in better shape, which all manifested itself on the court. Where Alexander was once awkward and lacking confidence, when he set foot on the hardwood he now looked like a man against boys with a body developed far beyond his age.

Before long, Oliver figured out he had something special on his hands. He was proud, but also worried. Coming from a single parent household, Oliver felt Alexander was vulnerable and easily influenced by his peers. He was forced into being the man of the household at an early age, but like any other 14- or 15-year-old, wasn't always ready for it.

"When he was a nobody, I used to say 'Cliff, when you make it, you're going to lose 90 percent of your first contract because your heart is too big,'" Oliver said. "You don't know how to tell people no. You always think it's OK to give and give and give, and before you know it you gonna be the guy who gave away everything you own.

"He's not going to do crazy stuff. He's just such a kind kid, he's trying to satisfy everybody."

It didn't take long before speculation over Alexander's NBA future snowballed. After moving to Nike's EYBL tour in the summer going into his senior year, Big Cliff became as touted as any player in the country. He was a physical force who could play above the rim on both ends of the floor. The added exposure of playing for a powerhouse Mac Irvin Fire team on the premier grassroots circuit in the country helped him rise as high as No. 3 in his class.

ESPN wrote of Alexander that, "Some of the athletic plays he makes dunking the ball and blocking shots are not seen from any other player in high school currently."

Every college coach in the country came calling. Cliff Alexander was officially a commodity.

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Alexander's college recruitment would eventually become a two-horse race: national powerhouse Kansas vs. his in-state school, Illinois.

The appeal of Kansas was obvious. From Cole Aldrich to Markieff Morris to Thomas Robinson to Joel Embiid, few coaches had done a better job recently of turning big men into first-round NBA draft picks than Bill Self. Still, rumors persisted that Alexander was giving serious consideration to the Illini, giving his announcement an air of uncertainty that many top commitments lack.

Illini fans were all-in on Alexander. In the years since Dee Brown and Deron Williams led the program to the national championship game in 2005, Illinois had finished second for a number of star local recruits. There was Eric Gordon flipping from Illinois to Indiana. There was Jon Scheyer choosing Duke over the Illini even though his high school coach was the brother of then-Illinois coach Bruce Weber. The Illini had to get this one, losing him to the program's former coach in Self would be even more heartbreaking.

In November 2013, Alexander sat at a table and began his announcement. When he reached for the hat that would signify his college decision, he momentarily picked up the wrong one.


Illinois fans were beside themselves, even though Oliver insists it was a simple mistake. Video of Illini students reacting to the decision immediately became an Internet hit, collecting more than 1.2 million views on YouTube.

For a large segment of fans in his home state, Alexander was suddenly a villain, fair or not. Oliver still can't believe the controversy that ensued.

"I talked to him right all the way up to the decision he made," Oliver said. "The kid was so confused at that point. One hour it was Illinois. The next hour it was Kansas. I think it was about nerves when he picked up the wrong hat. I don't think he meant no harm trying to show up his state school."

Alexander's high school career wouldn't end without another controversy. His Curie team made it all the way to the city championship game, where he squared off with Chicago's other five-star big man, consensus No. 1 overall recruit Jahlil Okafor of Whitney Young. With mayor Rahm Emanuel sitting in the first row, Curie and Young staged a four-overtime epic. Curie won on a last second shot, but the result wouldn't hold for long.

Curie had to vacate its championship and its 24-1 season because of an eligibility issue born from a failure to turn in proper paperwork. A year later, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that the same paperwork could only be accounted for in 15 percent of the games played by Chicago Public School teams, but the damage was already done.

It felt like Alexander just couldn't catch a break. This was only the start.

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When Alexander arrived in Lawrence, he was projected to be a top-five draft pick after his freshman season. But as soon as he stepped on campus, he endured another setback.

Alexander suffered a foot injury at an early practice that kept him sidelined for Kansas' summer workouts. He might have been a five-star recruit, but Self had plenty of veteran options in the frontcourt. It put Alexander at a disadvantage from the start, and he was never fully able to win over Self's trust.

Alexander's short time at Kansas was plagued by inconsistency: he'd dominate in spurts for one game, then barely play the next. With juniors Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor and sophomore Landen Lucas also fighting for playing time, Alexander often found that he was only one blown defensive rotation from sitting for the rest of the night.

Alexander's usage became a national storyline on January 17, when Kansas lost in Ames to Iowa State. Alexander put up six points and six rebounds in 12 first half minutes, but only played two minutes in the second half after he failed to close out on a three-pointer by the Cyclones' Dustin Hogue. After the game, Self questioned his "motor," a criticism that stuck with him all the way up to the predraft process.

Those who coached Alexander before he went to Kansas knew that his "motor" might have been his best trait. But Self refused to let Alexander play through his mistakes, even as he finished the season with the highest PER on the team. Just looking at the per-36 minute stats for the Jayhawks frontcourt rotation, it's easy to make the case that Alexander was Kansas' best two-way big man:

Points Rebounds Blocks True shooting percentage
Cliff Alexander 14.5 10.8 2.7 60.8
Perry Ellis 17.3 8.6 0.8 59.9
Landen Lucas 8.3 10.3 1.3 57.9
Jamari Traylor 8.4 6.6 1.9 51.5

Alexander's college career ended abruptly after a Feb. 23 loss to Kansas State. Yahoo! Sports reported that Alexander's mother had filed for a loan from a financial company that specialized in lending money to potential top draft picks. Kansas, fearing NCAA consequence, suspended Alexander indefinitely. He never played another college game, and the Jayhawks would fall in the round of 32 to Wichita State.

For all of the trouble Alexander went through at Kansas, he doesn't regret his decision.

"I had a good experience at Kansas," Alexander told SB Nation. "I had a good support system. It took me a little more time to define my role. Once I knew what I role really was, my season had ended."

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With no formal settlement to the pending court case and the early entry deadline looming just weeks after Kansas' ouster, Alexander's hand felt forced. Uncertainty lingered over his eligibility if he returned, so he decided to enter the NBA Draft.

It wasn't an easy choice, and many around Alexander told SB Nation they believed he would have returned to school were it not for the allegations.

"In high school, I thought about going one-and-done just because of all the hype," Alexander said. "Once my season started and I wasn't living up to my expectations, I started thinking about going back."

Alexander went into the predraft process feeling good about where his game was. He had added strength, shown an improved mid-range jump shot and proved his conditioning was up to par. Then, another setback: at the end of a 90-minute workout with the Lakers, Alexander injured his right knee.

He was unable to workout again before the draft. Alexander's agent, Reggie Brown of Priority Sports, said it was a devastating blow, because they were banking on Cliff playing his way out of any question marks teams would have.

When draft night finally came, Alexander's worst fears were realized. For Mike Irvin, who coached both Okafor -- the No. 3 overall pick -- and Alexander on the Mac Irvin Fire just two years ago, the divergent paths each of his star big men took felt overwhelming.

"It's crazy because one just flourished in college, and the other just failed," Irvin said. "As both of their coaches, I got to see both sides where one went to college and won the national championship and retained his status, and the other one the bottom fell out. He has a chance to recover, but the as far as his college career, the bottom fell out."

Brown said they had multiple deals in place for him to be selected, but it would have resulted in a draft-and-stash. His agency felt they couldn't accept that agreement in good faith.

"We knew the draft-and-stash would not be of benefit to him," Brown said. "Cliff was not mature enough at 19 years old to go overseas for the first time. He didn't have an older brother to help guide him like Emmanuel Mudiay did. I thought that would have been disastrous for his career so I made the decision not to do it.

"I could have took a lot of pressure off myself and in the media it looks great to have one of those teams take him, but I had to look him in the eye and tell him that we can't do this. This is not best for your career. I felt he had the heart big enough to climb out of this."

Brown says Alexander had about 15 offers from different teams as an undrafted free agent, but they chose to go with the Nets in part because they were competing in both the Orlando and Las Vegas Summer Leagues in July. Alexander came off the bench for Brooklyn, averaging 8.5 points and 6.6 rebounds in 22 minutes per game.

He showed enough to impress the Portland Trail Blazers, who agreed to a two-year partially guaranteed contract with Alexander last week. The D-League is likely in his future, but that could be exactly what he needs. He'll finally get the chance at regular playing time again and can focus on the things Portland envisions him bringing to the table in the future.

As the NBA continues to downsize in the frontcourt, many around Alexander believe he could grow into a quality small ball center option. He lacks the height of a traditional five, but makes up for it with a 7'3 wingspan and enough strength to hold his own in the post. In a world where Draymond Green was the starting center for the team that won the NBA Finals, it seems foolish to discount Alexander's potential fit at the five.

Despite Self's hesitations, anyone who knows Alexander will tell you he's never taken a play off. They believe his mid-range jumper is better than anyone will give him credit for. His rim protection and rebounding numbers in college speak for themselves. Maybe he won't develop into an Amar'e Stoudemire clone like he daydreamed about growing up, but he could have a long career as a role player capable of rebounding, defending and finishing around the rim.

With a deep voice, huge hands and grown man strength, it's easy to forget Alexander is only a year removed from his high school graduation. The resiliency he's shown fighting through so many obstacles already in his young life should only make him tougher.

The scene inside the night club at Alexander's draft party must have been heartbreaking in the moment, but he's determined ready not to let it be the end of his story. By now, Cliff Alexander is used to bouncing back.

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SB Nation presents: Another NBA origin story out of Kansas