In November of 2013, Cliff Alexander announced his college decision at his high school in Chicago. After initially reaching for an Illinois hat, the high school senior chose the University of Kansas. Illini fans were devastated, but Alexander's choice made sense. Kansas head coach Bill Self has churned out a slew of NBA big men over the past five seasons including Cole Aldrich, the Morris twins, Thomas Robinson, Jeff Withey, and Joel Embiid.
As a consensus top five recruit, Alexander figured to be the next front court player to have a massive impact in Lawrence. Recruiting analysts highlighted his ability to use his length to attack the rim, rebound, and block shots. Despite all of the build up, Alexander couldn't find his way into Self's starting lineup early in the season which saw the coach rely on program veterans Landen Lucas and Jamari Traylor instead.
It's now February, and although Alexander has made his way into the starting lineup for the past three games, he's only averaging 18 minutes per game this season. At this point, his lack of playing time has become a national story. SB Nation's Ricky O'Donnell laid out the case for Alexander shortly after Kansas lost to West Virginia. More recently, CBS Sports' Sam Vecenie argued that in order for the Jayhawks to reach their potential in March, Self needs to allow the freshman to play through his defensive mistakes.
Both Ricky and Sam offered the same caveat. Bill Self is a great coach. His methods have produced 10 straight Big 12 titles and a national championship at Kansas. He pushed all the right buttons with another highly touted freshman, Kelly Oubre, earlier this season. Although many will argue that Self is just doing the same with Alexander, there aren't many teaching moments left. With only a handful of regular season games remaining, Kansas is locked in a dog fight for NCAA seeding and is approaching the win or go home time of year.
The fact that Self is such a great coach is what makes this situation even more puzzling. The statistics paint a clear picture. Even after his poor game against TCU, Cliff Alexander is a more valuable player for Kansas than either Jamari Traylor or Landen Lucas. Advanced metrics including PER, win shares, and Box Plus/Minus all favor Alexander. His per 40 minute statistics suggest he's a more productive player than either Traylor or Lucas. And finally, the Jayhawks are a more efficient team with Alexander on the floor. By Sam's calculations, Kansas is 8.5 points per 100 possessions better on offense and 4.5 points per 100 possessions better on defense with Alexander in the game during Big 12 play.
|Per 40 Minutes||Points||Rebounds||Blocks||Steals||Turnovers||Fouls|
Despite what the statistics say, a number of fans in Jayhawk Nation still find themselves arguing against playing Alexander more minutes. The primary concerns are the freshman's effort and defensive ability. Since statistics aren't everyone's cup of tea, I decided to take the opportunity to review the tape. I've been watching Alexander's play in Big 12 games to see how well it matches up with the statistics and to see if the criticisms of his effort and defensive ability stand up. Let's walk through each of those issues first and then take a look at Alexander's contributions on the offensive end.
For most, the criticism of Alexander relies on an intangible: effort. The argument is that the young freshman simply takes too many plays off, and that his coach has drawn a line in the sand by demanding that he play to his ability on every play. Ignoring the fact that Alexander's production at a supposedly lower effort level is greater than Traylor or Lucas, what shows up when we review his actual play?
I don't think Alexander lacks a motor. He's incredibly aggressive on the defensive glass and works to contest opponents' field goal attempts on a regular basis. In fact, he leads the team in block percentage, rejecting 7.6 percent of shots taken when he's on the floor. He has the ability to turn away shots both from his man as you can see here (hover mouse to play):
And from opponents who have found their way into the lane:
Alexander struggles when he's asked to move a lot on defense. He's inconsistent in the pick-and-roll where he can be caught hedging too far out as he did in this Vine captured by NBC Sports' Rob Dauster. He can also get lost when asked to defend more mobile players that are able to step out away from the basket. For example, the play that got him benched against Iowa State involved Alexander failing to stick with the Cyclones' Dustin Hogue (GIF credit to Jesse Newell, Topeka Capital-Journal):
Perhaps Alexander is simply thinking too much. He knows he's supposed to hedge, but gets caught up in making sure he's doing it correctly. He also knows he should be protecting the paint, but sometimes gets a bit lost when quicker players are moving around. That's not an effort problem. He just hasn't developed those skills.
While he struggles at times defensively, Alexander is a well-developed rebounder. He has a defensive rebounding rate of 19.9 percent on the season and his in conference numbers rank in the top 10 amongst Big 12 players. He is good at fighting for position and then grabbing the ball with his 7-foot-3 wingspan when it comes his way:
The defensive rebounding troubles of Jamari Traylor have already been exposed, which makes the lack of playing time for Alexander curious when Self points to poor rebounding as the reason for losses as he did after the Jayhawks lost to West Virginia.
On the offensive end, Alexander is still a bit of a work in progress. Compared to other highly touted freshman big men, he struggles with his post game, but as Luke Winn pointed out, Alexander has shown flashes of brilliance including a nice hook shot:
He is also willing to aggressively fight for position in the post and can finish through contact:
Although Alexander may struggle at times in the post, he's the Jayhawks' best option when it comes to scoring at the rim. Alexander is converting 68.7 percent of his layup and dunk attempts this season, per hoop-math.com. That number is significantly better than any of the Jayhawks' other post players including Lucas (50.0 percent), Traylor (51.5 percent), and Perry Ellis (59.2 percent).
One reason for that high percentage is that Alexander has a penchant for playing above the rim. He leads this Kansas team in dunks and can often be found lurking near the basket waiting for a dump off pass or alley-oop from one of his teammates:
Alexander isn't without flaws. His defensive footwork needs to improve. He's not a polished offensive player at this point in his career, either. But he does offer Kansas a number of skills that other players on the team lack. He's a great offensive and defensive rebounder, he's the team's best finisher at the rim, and he also gives the Jayhawks some of the rim protection that has made Self's defenses some of the best in the country over the past several seasons.
Yes, Alexander is going to make mistakes, but so are the guys he's competing with for playing time. Lucas and Traylor have been in the program for three years and Self appears to trust them, but if Alexander is going to improve, then he needs to be allowed to play through his errors, too.
Now, don't confuse all of this to be an argument against playing Lucas and Traylor. Both players have a role on this team as 10-15 minute a night guys, but there are only so many minutes to go around and the Jayhawks are a better team when Cliff Alexander is on the floor. If Kansas expects to make a deep run in March, they'll need him out there.