From top college recruit to undrafted free agent in just one year, Cliff Alexander’s future is more uncertain than ever.
The excitement around University of Kansas basketball in November 2013 was palpable. Fans were getting glimpses of the much-hyped recruiting class that included one-and-done prospects Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. Coach Bill Self and company were also bringing in a new round of prospects for the 2014-15 season, including McDonald’s All-Americans Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander. The major recruiting services were very high on Alexander, giving him the fourth overall prospect ranking in the RSCI Composite.
Jayhawk fans expected huge things from Oubre and Alexander. While the Jayhawks won their 11th consecutive Big 12 title and earned a number two seed in the NCAA tournament, they were plagued with inconsistency all season before losing to Wichita State in the second round.
Alexander struggled for much of the season, playing reduced minutes behind upperclassmen Jamari Traylor and Landen Lucas. There were several reasons for Alexander’s slow start for the Jayhawks. In high school, Alexander played a limited role on both ends of the floor. He used his physical gifts to outmuscle smaller, less athletic players on the offense. On defense, Curie High School played a zone defense, and Alexander served as the anchor of the zone. His role was simply to block shots and rebound. Under Bill Self, KU runs a complex man scheme with a lot of switching and help principles. The adjustment was a difficult one for Alexander, who was plagued with missed assignments, late switches, and foul trouble for most of the season. There were some bright spots for Alexander into conference play. In KU’s Jan. 19 game against Oklahoma, Alexander posted 13 points and 13 rebounds in just 23 minutes. By the time Alexander was held out by KU, he had become a mainstay in the starting lineup and one of KU’s best interior players.
Before Jayhawks played Texas on Feb. 28, the team announced that Alexander would be held out for precautionary reasons because of possible NCAA infractions. The allegations had to do with Alexander’s mother taking out a loan based on Cliff’s future professional earnings, a violation of NCAA rules. The Alexander family ultimately declined to meet with NCAA investigators and Alexander never returned to the court for KU. He declared for the 2015 NBA Draft at the end of the season. Alexander finished the year averaging a disappointing 17 minutes, seven points, five rebounds, and one block per game.
In the 2015 NBA Draft, many expected Alexander to be picked early in the second round. However, in a pre-draft workout with the Los Angeles Lakers, Alexander suffered a mild knee sprain which prevented him from finishing his workouts. There were also reports of Alexander not interviewing with teams to the level they expected. At the end of draft night, Alexander’s name had not been called, and he became an undrafted free agent. The following day, it was announced that Alexander would play in the NBA Summer League for the Brooklyn Nets.
Alexander faces a steep climb to find a spot on the Nets for the 2015-16 season. There are already three power forwards on the Nets’ roster, including Brooklyn’s first round draft choice Chris McCullough. It is highly unlikely the Nets keep a fourth power forward. The best chance Alexander has to make the roster is to beat out a familiar name to Jayhawk fans, forward Cory Jefferson for the final interior spot. Jefferson is also expected to play for the Nets in Summer League play.
Many have weighed in on Alexander’s fall from a consensus top-five recruit to undrafted free agent fighting to make a roster. Some say Alexander was a raw, overrated prospect coming into college. Others believe Alexander would have been a very good college and professional player had there not been allegations of NCAA violations. We’ll never know how he would have panned out at Kansas, but as a Jayhawk, I’m rooting for Alexander to make a roster and succeed at the professional level. Many thought former Jayhawk Tarik Black wasn’t going to make it in the NBA, but Black played in 63 games for the Rockets and Lakers in 2014-15, posting a respectable line of six points and six rebounds per game. I could see Alexander having a similar impact if given the chance.