The odds that Cliff Alexander wouldn’t be the best big man in his own city, in his own class, had to be extraordinarily low. But such is life these days in Chicago, which itself is operating at an extraordinary clip producing top talent.
Alexander lives somewhat in the shadow of No. 1 overall prospect Jahlil Okafor, but even so our No. 3 center (Myles Turner is No. 2) has become a national fixture and the subject of an intense recruiting war.
Let's take it back to the Windy City, circa 2011. Like Okafor, Alexander emerged early as a serious talent. His freshman season didn't feature a great deal in terms of offense, but he already had patented his take no prisoners style and demonstrated impressive strength and athleticism for such a young big man.
Illinois and DePaul came through with early scholarship offers, and no one expected those two programs to be his only high-major suitors.
His sophomore season became a pivotal one for him, and by its conclusion Ohio State, Michigan State, Indiana and most other Big Ten programs had stepped forward.
Alexander elevated his game emphatically at the 2012 NBPA Top 100 Camp. There, he bullied players a full year older and was among the most impressive performers regardless of class.
As a junior he further enhanced his credentials, and he played capably (though his team lost) in a head to head battle versus Okafor late that season.
At the beginning of the EYBL season this past spring, however, Alexander performed inconsistently. He had gained some unneeded weight and lost explosiveness as a result, making him less dominant than we'd all expected.
But then came July. Alexander trimmed the fat and showed up at the LeBron James Skills Academy ready to destroy. He did exactly that, claiming that event as his own and physically and mentally overpowering his opponents. Given the extreme frontcourt talent level present at the event, his exploits there were that much more impressive.
In addition to his weight, he also found time to trim his list — but not too much. Alexander cut his contenders to 10: Kansas, Michigan State, Kentucky, Louisville, Illinois, DePaul, Indiana, Memphis, Baylor and Arizona. He mentioned the Jayhawks very prominently, and Kansas won out during the fall signing period.
Alexander's game can be boiled down into simple descriptors. He's a beast capable of repeated dunks at point-blank range, thanks to his powerful body and appetite for post ups. He also boasts high shoulders and long arms, and though not a high flyer he's an impressive straight-up leaper who's very quick off the floor.
That quality also enables him to swat away numerous shots on defense, and thus few opponents are competitive at either end of the court.
But Alexander does possess skill. He boasts a sure jump hook that he sets up with power dribbles and sound positioning with his shoulders and hips. He also flashes signs of becoming a clever interior passer, and he has reasonably good touch as a jump shooter.
His rebounding prowess owes to his size, strength and athleticism, and he's among the best in the class at retrieving the ball. As much as anything, Alexander is a great rebounder because he desires to be one. He's a confrontational player in the more desirable regard, one who competes with shouts and grunts and exerts intense mental pressure on opponents who struggle to relax into their games when he's in the vicinity.
All that may sound like an overstatement of the case, but watch him play a couple games and his tangibles and intangibles become very clear.
First, he doesn't possess ideal height for center. At 6-9, he's fine for college but likely will need to move to power forward for the NBA. He does possess encouraging skills along those lines, too, but laterally he's a center and doesn’t project to ever become a perimeter-oriented four.
Along with that, he sometimes attempts too many jump shots in an effort to prove he's a fully skilled player, when he's by far at his best playing inside. The temptation is understandable because of the paragraph that precedes this one, but his perimeter development remains a few years away.
It's difficult not to be excited about Alexander's immediate and long-term future. He's a dynamic collegiate prospect and a very good one for the pros, whose style and personality may enable him to riff on Al Jefferson's success.
The two play with similar ferocity and bravado at the same stage, and Jefferson has enjoyed great prosperity despite not having ideal center height himself. The Charlotte Bobcats big man was more polished at that age, but Alexander is springier and a superior defender.
Player comparisons aside, Alexander will be among the most exciting and gifted college hoopsters in 2014-15.