The NBA Draft can be cruel.
As joyous as the moment is for the first player selected every year, the draft can crush the spirit of others – especially in the case of a prospect previously projected as a lottery pick, who suddenly and mysteriously falls from sight.
Former Kansas forward Cliff Alexander found himself in that position Thursday night. He waited and waited, as excruciating moments turned to hours.
Finally, the lights were turned off. As the bottom picks of the second round were announced, it became clear Alexander would go undrafted. And that left people scratching their heads in dismay.
There were late whispers it might happen. From the moment he declared his entry into the draft, it was clear he was no longer considered a lottery pick. But many prognosticators had him going no later than midway through the second round. Others tabbed him for the end of the first round.
Alexander’s fall from grace actually is easier to explain than any forecast for his future. How he handles this setback becomes the issue now.
“I would hope [it motivates him],” Kansas coach Bill Self said late Thursday night. “This is what I have a hard time with. I think it will. I think it will. But guys that are playing for the last piece of meat left on earth, they’re all motivated.
“I don’t know if this will motivate him more. Let’s say he went [No.] 42. He’s still got to make a team. That’s the whole thing. If this motivates him, which I’m sure it will in some way, shape or form, that’s exactly what it should do.”
Alexander hinted at that in a tweet he posted late Thursday night.
One year ago today, Alexander was sitting at the No. 2 pick in a 2015 mock draft by DraftExpress.com. As a top-five prospect out of high school and headed into his freshman season at Kansas, that was how he was viewed. But it didn’t last. By December he was down to 10. During the Big 12 conference portion of the KU schedule, he tumbled out of the lottery and then dropped to No. 31 in March. After reaching a low of No. 45 on June 16, the site elevated him to No. 28 in its final mock draft.
Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge told ESPN.com that Alexander is athletic and strong. “He can shoot a little better than you could see at Kansas.”
Alexander never sparkled with the Jayhawks. He struggled to get into Self’s starting lineup and then wasn’t there consistently. Alexander had injury issues and only showed flashes of his potential. He averaged 7.1 points, shooting a team-high 56.6 percent, and 5.3 rebounds. But he averaged only 17.3 minutes in 28 games.
When it looked as if he might hit his stride heading into the postseason, he was benched the final eight games – a decision Kansas made because Alexander’s NCAA eligibility was in question. The NCAA never did rule in an investigation that his mother, Latillia, accepted improper benefits from a third party. But the uncertainly over that issue cemented his decision to leave Kansas after his freshman season.
As Alexander traveled from workout to workout in preparation for the draft, he told multiple publications that his year at Kansas had been unexpectedly discouraging. He also said Self would have to answer to his lack of more playing time.
“I got dealt a bad deck of cards when I was at Kansas,” Alexander said. “It just didn’t go as I planned it. It was just an off situation, so I just have to move forward and move on with everything.
“When I was playing, I wasn’t very dominant. I didn’t live up to my expectations how I was supposed to. When the suspension came, it just made me go down more.”
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas raised the issue on air Thursday and said he wondered if those comments hurt Alexander. Self said he had talked to Alexander in recent days and asked him about the quotes. But he threw his support in Alexander’s corner.
“He did get dealt a bad hand,” Self said. “That’s exactly what I told Cliff all along. Cliff always said what I told him. He got dealt a bad hand here with the NCAA. That’s what I told him when it all went down with the NCAA. I said, ‘Cliff, you haven’t done anything wrong; you’ve been dealt a bad hand. You’ve got to hang in there and deal with whatever.’ ”
Self also said it was wrong to view Alexander’s comments as a slam against Kansas.
“That wasn’t a negative towards Kansas at all, to say he got dealt a bad hand,” Self said. “I asked him about it, and he said, ‘Coach that’s what you told me.’ And I said, ‘That’s exactly right, bud. That’s exactly what I told you.’ ”
Kansas was a potential No. 1 seed in the 2015 NCAA tournament. But with several injuries and the loss of Alexander, the Jayhawks instead ended their season with a humbling loss to rival Wichita State in the first weekend of the tournament.
“Our team wasn’t as whole and as good without him,” Self said. “But certainly, you just look back. With Perry [Ellis] being hurt, we could have played through [Alexander] more. It could have been a good situation for him. He didn’t get a chance to do it.
“A lot of [NBA] people called on Cliff early but I hadn’t heard that much late. He was pretty much in the dark on that too. It doesn’t shock me. Here’s the thing. Cliff didn’t have a chance to play at the end of the season. Certainly that hurt. There’s no question about that.”
Self told one reporter it was wrong to deal “strictly on the negative.”
“I don’t think it’s a negative,” Self said. “From a pride standpoint and ego standpoint, we all wanted him to get drafted as early as possible. But it just didn’t work out. It’s not the worst thing that has happened.”
That was the message Self sent to Alexander by text after the draft. That, in itself, is an indication of how much has gone wrong for the freshman. Self said after Alexander was suspended he was the “best player in the gym” for the Jayhawks.
But there was no pressure then, Self said. And nobody, other than his teammates, witnessed it.
“Here’s the thing,” Self said. “I hate to say this. You’ve got a [NBA] combine. You’ve got an opportunity to go work out for everybody. You’ve got all these things going on. I didn’t anticipate this. But based on what I’ve been told from NBA teams, during the workouts, he competed hard, he tried real hard, all these things. I bet you right now he is the most sought-after guy.”
Alexander wasn’t the only early-entry candidate who had a stressful night. Here are the four other players who round out our list of 2015 draft busts.
J.P. Tokoto, F, North Carolina – Can’t think of anyone who thought it was a good idea for Tokoto to leave the Tar Heels after his junior season. Philadelphia selected him in the second round, but with the 58th pick out of 60. That’s not a good spot to be in. At least Alexander can shop around as an undrafted free agent. Tokoto has to convince the Sixers he has a jump shot and is more than a defender.
Aaron Harrison, G, Kentucky – Aaron sat and watched as six of his Kentucky teammates were drafted – including his brother, Andrew. Those clutch shots during the 2014 march to the Final Four are sort of wasted now. Overall, his game just isn’t that efficient. It’s hard to imagine a team that would fill a need by signing him.
Chris Walker, F, Florida – Walker hasn’t made many good decisions in his career. He may have set a Gator record for suspensions. Either he got awful advice or ignored what everyone was telling him. The NBA doesn’t take you just for height and athleticism. He doesn’t have the basketball IQ for the NBA and he wasn’t impressive in workouts, according to reports.
Christian Wood, F, UNLV – Wood is wiry. He needs to gain weight. NBA weight. He is 6-11 and has great length. He averaged a double-double as a sophomore but just didn’t have the maturity for the NBA yet. Why don’t these guys stay in school when they obviously aren’t ready? Hopefully, in the future, they will have a chance to return to school after making mistakes.