LAWRENCE — When Andrew Wiggins landed at Kansas City International Airport last June, a small crowd of KU fans had assembled outside the gate, waiting with signs and jerseys.
It was an unprecedented arrival for a freshman with unprecedented hype and attention.
It was also not the norm.
As Cliff Alexander will tell you, the introductions to Kansas basketball are usually a lot quieter. At just past 11 p.m. on Wednesday, Alexander, a 6-foot-8 power forward, rolled into town after a long drive from his home in Chicago.
One day earlier, he had celebrated his graduation ceremony at Curie High. Then it was home to pack his things as his college basketball career beckoned.
After three days on campus, Alexander had yet to be stopped by any strangers in Lawrence — a common ritual for the most heralded of young Jayhawks.
“No, not yet,” Alexander said on Sunday, after signing autographs before the start of Bill Self’s first basketball camp of the summer.
Alexander, of course, is hoping that his freshman season at Kansas is not as quiet as his first week on campus. A McDonald’s All-American and consensus top-five recruit, Alexander doesn’t come prepackaged with the hype or whimsical potential of Wiggins, but he is the leading man in another talent-laden freshman class.
The latest product of the plentiful Chicago-to-Kansas pipeline, Alexander is also not shy about offering a simple preview of his game.
“One word,” Alexander said. “Power.”
Alexander then let out a small giggle, a moment reminiscent of former Kansas star Brandon Rush arriving on campus nine years ago and declaring that he would bring one thing to KU: “Highlights.”
Self will surely hope for more than just one-word descriptors from Alexander, who will have to help fill the void left by the departures of freshman center Joel Embiid and senior forward Tarik Black. But Alexander, a potential starter alongside junior forward Perry Ellis, may just have the pedigree to do it.
An archetypal power forward, Alexander is a combination of brute strength and skillful athleticism. When he arrived on campus last week, he measured in at 6-foot-81/2 and 240 pounds. He would like to gain some strength this summer. But he would also like to refine his outside game as well. Yes, Alexander insists he can shoot from three-point range.
“Of course I can shoot the three,” Alexander said.
His three-point prowess aside, if you listen to Self, you are much more likely to hear a scouting report that focuses on toughness and rebounding.
“Cliff comes here from a long line of great ones from Chicago and has as much potential as anybody in the class,” Self said last fall, after Alexander signed his letter of intent. “He can play on the block, and he can play behind the arc. He can play in between, but the biggest thing he can do is rebound the ball. He'll remind our fans of a Thomas Robinson going after the ball rebounding.”
Alexander chose Kansas for a combination of reasons, he says, but the main one was Self’s ability to develop players into pros. Last fall, he attended Kansas’ Late Night in the Phog, where he consulted with Sherron Collins, a former Jayhawk and fellow Chicago native.
Collins assured Alexander that he would be comfortable playing for Self, and Alexander was comforted by the history of big men that have come through KU.
“Coach Self will get you ready,” Alexander said earlier this year.
This is the era of one-and-done, of course, so the next subject could cloud over Alexander’s freshman season, much as it did with Wiggins and Embiid. He has been on campus for three days, but the question is obvious: Is Alexander the latest freshman to spend just one season at Kansas?
“I’m not sure,” Alexander said. “It depends on how I play. If I’m ready, I’ll go. But if I’m not, I’ll stay.”
Before finishing his high school days at Curie, Alexander spent his spring on the All-Star game circuit, playing in the McDonald’s All-American Game in Chicago, the Jordan Brand Classic in New York, and the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland, Ore. He also took a trip to the BallisLife All-American Game, where his father, Clifton Terry, caused a viral stir on social media with a series of dunks during practice. Terry, 40, was a former Chicago prep standout himself, but Alexander insists that’s still the top dunker in his family.
“He knows that I can dunk better than him,” Alexander said.
For now, Alexander is enjoying his first days in the Kansas program. He’s bonded with fellow freshmen Kelly Oubre Jr. and Devonte’ Graham and began to explore the campus. He’s rooming with sophomore guard Conner Frankamp.
Earlier this spring, Self was quite bullish on his latest freshman class, comparing them with some of his best. Alexander is not going to argue.
“Hopefully it comes true, if we come in and do what we need to do,” Alexander said.
Alexander spent most of the last year following the Kansas program from Chicago, watching Wiggins and some of his future teammates win another Big 12 championship. But now it’s time for him to take the next step.
“It was pretty upsetting when Stanford put them out (in the NCAA Tournament), and I paid close attention,” Alexander said. “They really didn’t have a good season last year, but hopefully we can change that this year.”