In the months before the NBA Draft, Cliff Alexander set out to change minds, one scout and general manager at a time. He really had no choice. He needed to start over.
Alexander, the former Kansas forward, yearned to re-tool his image, to redeem his reputation, to reshape the way the basketball world has come to view him. He is not exactly sure how this all happened, how people have come to see him in a negative light. He knows his freshman season did not go as planned. He knows he did not live up to expectations. He knows there were off-court problems that colored perceptions. But as he takes the next step in his basketball career — a career that he hopes last years — he would first like to start with one thing.
“Just trying to clean up my image,” he says, sitting before cameras in the weeks before Thursday’s NBA Draft. “Because everybody wants to paint a bad image of me.”
Twelve months ago, Alexander was the latest top-five recruit to land at Kansas, a coveted prospect, a potential one-and-done star, an 18-year-old kid unloading his car and settling into an apartment at the Jayhawker Towers. He expected his stay to be brief.
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Today he is perhaps the biggest mystery in the NBA Draft, an enigma in a draft loaded with question marks. Can Alexander, a 6-foot-8 power forward, sneak into the back end of the first round? Will he tumble deep into the second? For the moment, nobody can really say with certainty where Alexander will be drafted, least of all his former college coach.
“I don’t have a good feel for Cliff at all,” Kansas coach Bill Self says. “Because most people are saying early second (round), but workouts may dictate something else, where he could go earlier. But we’ll wait and see.”
By now, Alexander’s disappointing freshman season has been well documented. A year ago, he arrived as a missing piece in the Kansas frontcourt, a bullish power forward with the ability to overpower defenders and clean up the glass. Alexander flashed some of that potential as freshman, but he also failed to find comfort. He battled injuries — a foot ailment last summer, a chest injury during the season — and he rankled Self with inconsistent effort. He was benched at times, and his season, ultimately, was derailed by an NCAA investigation after his mother, Latillia, accepted improper benefits from a third party.
In some ways, Alexander always envisioned leaving Kansas after one season. But in the end, with his amateur status compromised, there was really no decision to make.
“When I was at Kansas, it was just a struggle,” Alexander said in May at the NBA combine. “I just got dealt a bad deck of cards.”
In the months leading up to the draft, Alexander wanted to prove he was still a first-round talent. He wanted to show teams that his jumper could be consistent. He wanted to display improved footwork. He wanted to answer a list of questions — questions he could rattle off himself for most of the spring.
“Can I shoot the ball well?” Alexander said. “Can I move my feet on defense. Can I guard? Am I a good enough athlete?”
Alexander, of course, believes he is more than capable in all those areas. But to this point, the reviews have been mixed. A knee injury in early June slowed his workout schedule. (According to Alexander’s agent, it was a mild MCL sprain.) In his latest mock draft, ESPN analyst Chad Ford projected Alexander to go No. 44 overall to the Phoenix Suns. Jonathan Givony, an analyst at DraftExpress.com, has Alexander going No. 34 to the Los Angeles Lakers.
NBA talent evaluators have concerns about Alexander’s basketball IQ, his size and his raw skill-set. At the NBA combine, Alexander measured in at 6 feet 7 1/4 without shoes. By comparison, former KU power forward Thomas Robinson, a lottery pick who has struggled to find a foothold in an NBA rotation, was measured at 6 feet 7 3/4 at the combine in 2012. Alexander, though, is unusually long — his wingspan has been measured at 7 feet 3 1/2 — which helps nullify some of the size questions.
Self, though, is still optimistic about Alexander’s potential. When Self recruited Alexander, he thought of him as a possible Buck Williams-type power forward, comparing Alexander to the former undersized player who made three All-Star appearances in the 1980s.
“I think he can be a very good, prototypical-type power forward,” Self said this week.
Alexander believes this, too. Then again, what else do you expect?
Forget his freshman struggles, Alexander says. Focus, instead, on the potential and the future.
“I’m just trying to clean up my image,” Alexander says, “and just sell myself that I’ll work hard for any team that picks me.”