The moment came nearly a month ago, in the minutes after Kansas’ preseason men’s basketball victory over Emporia State.
The Jayhawks had just destroyed the Hornets 109-56, and freshman forward Cliff Alexander had mauled his way to 12 points and six rebounds in just 13 minutes of court time.
Emporia State coach Shaun Vandiver, a former star big man at Colorado, sat down in the Allen Fieldhouse media room and gazed at a stat sheet. This was Vandiver’s first look at Alexander — and rest of the Kansas frontcourt — and the towering coach was left reciting an old phrase he had learned years earlier.
“We call ’em GAMs,” Vandiver said. “Grown (rhymes with sass) men.”
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On that night in early November, Kansas coach Bill Self might have politely disagreed with Vandiver’s assessment, especially when it came to Alexander, the centerpiece of the Jayhawks’ freshman class.
Based purely on physical description, Alexander has the “grown” thing down. He stands 6 feet 8; weighs in at a broad-shouldered 240 pounds; and he describes his playing style in a simple and unsophisticated way.
“Power,” Alexander will say.
But it was clear from the beginning that Self believed Alexander had much to learn. While Duke freshman center Jahlil Okafor — another Chicago native and top-five recruit — exploded into a national player of the year candidate during the month of November, Alexander’s first month of college basketball was defined by flashes of promise and a slow build in playing time.
“Some guys it takes a little bit longer and they learn through repetition,” Self said this week. “They learn through being visual … Cliff is one of those guys that’s going to learn through repetition. Once he gets enough reps, he’s going to be fabulous.”
Alexander, who is averaging 18.7 minutes per game, is already proving to be something close. He is averaging 10.0 points and 6.6 rebounds while coming off the bench for all seven games, and the advanced metrics suggest that Alexander could be even more productive as his minutes increase.
When he’s on the floor, Alexander is Kansas’ most efficient scorer, averaging 1.21 points per possession. (Junior Perry Ellis is averaging 1.18). Alexander’s offensive rebounding percentage ranks 39th in the country. And while Self has been concerned with Alexander’s inclination to foul, it’s also worked in the reverse: Alexander is one of the best in the country at forcing contact and provoking fouls, drawing 8.7 fouls per 40 minutes. That number ranks eighth in college basketball.
“Cliff embraces contact,” Self said.
So the natural question comes: Could Alexander, a potential one-and-done player, eventually crack the starting lineup? For now, Self says it’s a matter of when, and not if, and Alexander will likely see an increase in playing time on Wednesday, when the Jayhawks face Georgetown at the Verizon Center at 6 p.m.
Junior forward Jamari Traylor will serve a one-game suspension after being involved in an off-court incident last weekend, and the Jayhawks will need their biggest bodies on the floor against Georgetown center Joshua Smith, a 6-foot-10, 350-pound load on the block.
“When (Cliff) and Josh are guarding each other, there will be some banging going on in that regard,” Self said.
In Self’s view, Alexander is just scratching the surface of what he can become. During his first months on campus, Alexander has proven to be a “sponge,” as Self puts it, a freshman big man who craves coaching and desires to be great.
But on some days, the process is smoother than others.
To put this point in context, Self uses an example from last season, when the KU coaching staff was molding Joel Embiid into an eventual lottery pick. Embiid had played organized basketball for just a couple years, but he was something like a basketball savant. He could perfect post moves on the first attempt; his mind and body were always synchronized.
“Nobody is going to be like Joel ever again,” Self said. “He’s smarter than the coaches. Joel gets it. Joel was Danny (Manning). Danny had that same type of mindset.”
So perhaps Alexander is a different specimen than Embiid or Manning — a little rougher around edges. But it’s also worth pointing out that through six games, Alexander has actually earned more minutes than Embiid through the same point last season.
It was around this time last year, of course, that Embiid rocketed into the national consciousness and claimed a spot on NBA draft boards. For the moment, Alexander is trying to take the same step from freshman big man to certified GAM.
“When you look at (our) inside guys, Cliff has probably played as well as anybody,” Self said. “But I do think he will emerge as a guy that we can play through.
“His passing has improved dramatically. His rebounding outside the area has improved dramatically. He’s getting a better understanding of what we’re trying to do offensively and defensively, whereas early on he was just out there. Now he’s actually out there with a purpose.”