University of Kansas

Alexander could fill big hole in KU middle

Cliff Alexander (right) shoots over Hunter Mickelson in a scrimmage at Kansas coach Bill Self’s camp in June in Lawrence.
Cliff Alexander (right) shoots over Hunter Mickelson in a scrimmage at Kansas coach Bill Self’s camp in June in Lawrence. Kansas City Star

There is an innate gene built into Bill Self’s basketball DNA, a trait that shapes much of his core philosophy as a coach. It is a simple one, really, with very few shades of gray, but as another basketball season begins at Allen Fieldhouse, we’ll let Self explain his theory of ball.

“Basketball can be summed up very easily,” Self said. “If you’re good, you get easy baskets and (you) don’t give them up.”

If Self’s brand of basketball can be reduced to a couple of sentences, then his 11-year tenure at Kansas can be boiled down to this: For more than a decade, Self has searched the country for players that can score easy baskets and stop the other team from doing the same.

So as Kansas begins another season with its exhibition opener against Washburn on Monday night, it’s perhaps fair to say that the Jayhawks’ most important player could be a 6-foot-8, 240-pound freshman with the ability to excel at both of those tasks.

The name, of course, is Cliff Alexander, a power forward from Chicago and the crown jewel of another vaunted freshman class. A brutish forward with athleticism and growing skill, Alexander is positioned to fill a sizable hole in the paint left by the departure Joel Embiid, a one-and-done lottery pick.

But for the moment, Self cautions, Alexander is still something of a work in progress.

“I think Cliff has done great,” Self said. “I just think he needs a lot of reps.”

In an ideal world, Self would have another veteran big guy to plug into the paint while Alexander develops at his natural pace. But once you account for junior forward Perry Ellis, the Jayhawks are still slightly unproven in the middle.

Junior forward Jamari Traylor will be a part of the rotation, and sophomore Landen Lucas and junior transfer Hunter Mickelson will each battle for minutes. But the Jayhawks lack a true rim protector in the mold of Embiid or Jeff Withey. So if Self wants to play his usual style — which is to say, pound opponents in the paint — much will rest on the development of Alexander, who was selected as a co-Big 12 preseason freshman of the year by the league’s head coaches.

“He's a little bit behind just with simple things, whether it be pivoting or being able to fan the ball out of the post, just things that he's never had to do,” Self said.

“He just caught it and just mauled people in high school, and you can't do that obviously at this level.”

After arriving on campus in June, Alexander was slowed by a severe ankle sprain for much of the summer. He missed part of June and most of July. And while he’s back to 100 percent, the injury cost him some valuable development time.

“The ankle is fine, excellent,” said Alexander, a McDonald’s All-American. "It was kind of stressful seeing my team run up and down, having fun with me just on the sideline.”

In recent weeks, Self has compared Alexander to former Kansas star Thomas Robinson. And it’s easy to see the similarities. Alexander is a natural rebounder and likes to use his physicality around the rim. When asked to describe his game last summer, the confident Alexander offered just one word:

“Power,” he said.

But for now, Alexander is still learning how to harness some of that raw muscle. That makes the Jayhawks’ two exhibition games critical. KU will open the regular season against UC Santa Barbara on Nov. 14, and then face preseason No. 1 Kentucky at the Champions Classic in Indianapolis on Nov. 18. In that sense, Alexander has time to grow and develop — but the time is certainly coming fast.

“I think Cliff can be a physical player,” Self said. “I'm not sure that he knows how yet, because his idea of being physical would be getting three fouls in the first 5 minutes. So he's going to have to learn how to guard and move his feet and pick his spots.”

Reach Rustin Dodd at Follow him on Twitter: @rustindodd.

Washburn at Kansas

What: Exhibition game

When: 7 p.m. Monday

Where: Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence

Radio: KFH, 1240-AM, 98.7-FM

TV: Cox 22