Guest Post: The Cliff Alexander conundrum


Mandatory Credit: Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Stone (@cstonehoops) is an avid basketball fan from the great state of Kansas. His writings can be found on Ain’t No Seats, Rush The Court, and Rock Chalk Talk.

Kansas freshman Cliff Alexander should be getting used to being in limbo—that is, stuck in a state of uncertainty.

After using his size and athleticism to dominate high school competition, Alexander arrived at Kansas expecting to quickly become the next great Jayhawk big man, following the recent tradition of guys like Cole Aldrich, the Morris twins, Jeff Withey, Thomas Robinson, and Joel Embiid.

Alexander, though, was stuck, unable to consistently crack the starting lineup until the middle of conference play because his head coach, Bill Self, believed the freshman could be playing harder. And now, with the announcement of an “NCAA issue,” Alexander is uncertain of his playing status. Kansas held him out of two recent games as the NCAA continues to investigate the issue that may affect Alexander’s collegiate eligibility.

The NCAA’s conclusion may help determine whether or not Alexander enters the 2015 NBA Draft. After coming into college planning to be a one-and-done, Alexander has seen his draft stock slowly slip as the season has progressed—initially projected as a lottery pick, he is now expected to be mid-to-late first round option. Unless his hand is forced by the NCAA, Alexander will have a difficult decision to make regarding whether or not to declare.

The problem for Alexander is that he’s stuck in positional limbo. As a 6-foot-8, 240-pound big man, his size makes him more suited to play power forward in the NBA, but his current skill set fits the mold of an undersized center.

Offensively, Alexander is limited. He lacks a midrange game that would allow him to play power forward and space the floor in the modern NBA game. 35.7 percent of his field goal attempts this season are 2-point jump shots, according to Hoop Math data, but he is making just 34.8 percent of those attempts. Data from Shot Analytics shows that Alexander is only an above average shooter from the short corner on the right hand side of the floor.

The good news is that Alexander’s mechanics are sound when he squares himself up to the hoop, which should give him the potential to develop this part of his game.

Alexander also currently struggles in the back to the basket game. He has failed to develop his post moves beyond a baby hook shot, which you can see in the follow clip as he gets position and turns over his left shoulder, finishing with his right hand.

The team that drafts Alexander will be getting a post player who does know how to cut and get into space on the offensive end. Despite his inability to consistently knock down a midrange jumper and his limited set of post moves, Alexander has shown a nose for the ball around the rim. He avoids clogging driving lanes and does well to make himself available to teammates at the rim where he has been assisted on 66.7 percent of his makes.

Here, Alexander slides in behind Oklahoma’s Ryan Spangler who has stepped up to stop Frank Mason’s drive.

When Alexander isn’t being assisted down low, it’s likely that he’s grabbing offensive rebounds and scoring on putbacks. He has the ability to get position on defensive rebounders and also has a high motor on the offensive glass. Alexander’s 13.2 percent offensive rebounding rate ranks in the top 60 of the NCAA, per KenPom.

On the defensive end, Alexander provides solid defensive rebounding and rim protection. Grabbing defensive boards is an often underrated aspect of defense, but they’re incredibly important given that they end the opponent’s possession. The Jayhawks’ two games against West Virginia this season, for example, in which Alexander played just six minutes and the Mountaineers combined for 43 offensive rebounds, emphasized the importance of his defensive rebounding. He does well to get position on opponents and then uses his 7-foot-3 wingspan to pull down rebounds.

Alexander’s rim protection has been valuable at the college level, too, but his size makes it unclear if that will translate to the NBA level. Still, he’s shown the ability to anticipate penetration and rotate to turn away or alter shots at the rim, as he did on this play against Texas Tech:

Alexander’s trouble defensively comes when he’s asked to move his feet whether it’s in the pick-and-roll or guarding a quicker offensive player. At times, it seems as though Alexander simply gets lost on the floor. It’s most obvious in the pick-and-roll where his positioning leaves much to be desired.

For example, here Alexander’s job is to hedge the ball handler, but instead he runs straight into Baylor’s Royce O’Neale, committing a foul.

His movement also comes into play when defending quicker defenders such as West Virginia’s Devin Williams.

In the following clip, Alexander is defending Williams at the foul line in isolation and Williams succeeds by putting the ball on the floor and taking Alexander off the dribble. Alexander’s feet look stuck in cement as he attempts to keep up with the quicker Williams.

There’s a lot of criticism in the prior paragraphs, but at this point it’s fair to ask what an NBA team is getting should they draft Cliff Alexander. His size and skill set put him in an awkward position at this point in his career. Certainly, Alexander could improve his midrange game and develop into a reasonable power forward in the NBA. But at the very least, a team would be getting a guy with the potential to be a solid role player coming off the bench thanks to his ability to grab rebounds, block a few shots, and get in space to finish at the rim.

Initially viewed by many as a lottery pick, Alexander is correctly slotted by most mock drafts in the mid-to-late 20s. If allowed by the NCAA, he would benefit from another year at Kansas.