Monday, December 29, 2014

Bill Self and Cliff Alexander

The mock drafts don't mean anything. And I would tell the guy if he was here doing the mock drafts. They don't mean anything. They're ridiculous. - Bill Self
Kansas coach Bill Self started a minor brouhaha in the media two weeks ago, when he ripped the concept of "mock drafts" to reporters. Like Jim Boeheim, who had a similar rant about draft coverage earlier in the season, Self isn't pleased about some of the things being said about two of his highly-touted freshman - Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander - and he's taking it out on some of the most visible names saying it. The cynical interpretation is that Self and Boeheim are nothing more than two self-interested college coaches who want their players to stay as long at school as possible and help them win a bunch of games. That may or may not be true, but there is more to the story than that.

Coming into the season, Oubre and Alexander were projected to go in the Top 5 in most of the mock drafts out there. They were five-star recruits, the best of the best, the No. 4 and No. 6 overall recruits in the country, according to Yahoo! With Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid in the NBA, there were a lot of minutes and shots available in Lawrence and it seemed like Self could slide his two star freshmen into the place of his last two and the ball would just keep on rolling.

However, after watching Cliff Alexander at the McDonald's Week practices at the end of his senior season of high school, I could see this narrative going off the rails. While there is a lot to like about Alexander's game, he is by no means ready to play in the NBA anytime soon and he doesn't really have the skill-set to be a star at the next level. You have to keep in mind that recruiting rankings are as much about high-school success as they are NBA potential because there's no conceivable scenario where Cliff Alexander could be higher ranked than Karl Towns if it was otherwise. The recruiting rankings are great for what they are but I have learned not to trust them on an individual level - the guys who compile them make mistakes the same as everyone else.

Just because a guy was ranked in the Top 10 of his high school class doesn't necessarily mean anything. The Harrison Twins are a great example of that - two 6'6 twin guards who were seen as future lottery picks in high school because they could tower over smaller players but who lack the type of explosiveness and change of direction to allow them to be high-level NBA players. The first time I ever saw them live was in a non-conference game against Baylor at Cowboys Stadium and in that game, they had no ability to stay in front of Kenny Chery. Chery was playing with total confidence because he knew he could go around them whenever he wanted. They just did not have the size/speed ratio you would expect for guys as highly touted as they were. Unless they become knock down three-point shooters, I have a hard time seeing either being an NBA player.

I can see why Alexander was so highly rated in high school - he's long and active, he has an NBA body and athleticism, he plays in Chicago and he squared off against Jahlil Okafor a bunch of times. However, that doesn't mean he is a sure thing at the next level. If you break down Cliff's game from that POV, a number of worrisome things jump out to you:

1) At 6'9 250 with a 7'2 wingspan, he is an average sized PF and a very undersized C at the next level. If he's going to be a C, he's going to have to come off the bench. The best NBA C's are way too tall and long for him and he doesn't have the type of elite, elite athleticism to make up for it. Compare him to Thomas Robinson and you will see what I mean. That was a guy with a permanent turbo button at the college level.

2) If he's playing as a PF, where is his perimeter game? Alexander is the farthest thing from a polished player. At this stage in his career, he's not an advanced dribbler, shooter, passer or post-up player. That's not a big deal for a college freshman but it's something to keep in mind when you think about his draft stock.

3) When you look at Alexander like that - an undersized PF without elite athleticism, a high feel for the game or much perimeter skill - it's pretty obvious that he was never going to be a Top 5 pick after one season of college. With the way the NBA is going, Alexander is going to have to craft his game a lot just to find a niche. The league is quickly going towards four-out basketball, which means that prospects who play on the inside have to be big enough to be 5's or they had better start to learn how to be stretch 4's.

The good news for Alexander is that he's in the perfect place to develop those types of skills. Bill Self has put a ton of big men in the NBA over the last decade. There's no country in the coach that does a better job of developing guys inside/outside games and putting them in the position to put up the type of stats that will intrigue NBA teams. Look at all the Kansas players who have been drafted since Self took over in 2004. A lot of these guys weren't anywhere close to being elite high school recruits:

2005 - Wayne Simien
2007 - Julian Wright
2008 - Brandon Rush, Darrell Arthur, Mario Chalmers, Darnell Jackson, Sasha Kaun
2010 - Xavier Henry, Cole Aldrich
2011 - Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Josh Selby
2012 - Thomas Robinson, Tyshawn Taylor
2013 - Ben McLemore, Jeff Withey
2014 - Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid
A rookie contract can make you a bunch of money. But it’s not about making the NBA but lasting in the NBA. A 10-year career can make you a lot more money. - Kyle Korver
Most coverage of the NBA draft is centered around positioning - Is this guy a lottery pick? What type of year does he need to have to move off the first round bubble? How many draft picks are there on this roster? By that reasoning, the most important thing a guy can do in college is maximize draft position, since being drafted higher gets you more money and higher picks have better careers.

Bill Self has been around long enough to know you need to deal with these guys as individuals, not aggregates. It doesn't matter if you are drafted in the lottery if you haven't developed your game to the point where you can help your NBA team. Just ask Thomas Robinson.

When you have been doing this as long as Self has and you have seen generations of your players fail or succeed at the next level, you start to develop a fairly good feel for which ones are going to bust out and you know what they need to do in order to stay in the league. I will go as far as to say this - the draft is not a crap-shoot for Bill Self, not when it comes to his own guys. If you gave him a truth serum in 2012, he could have told you that T-Rob better invest that rookie deal like someone living on a fixed income for the rest of his life.

You can forget the college stats, which are completely dependent on the context of the teammates around them. Robinson didn't come into the league with a better chance to succeed than Darrell Arthur, who was taken at No. 27 in 2008. Unlike Robinson, Arthur only spent two seasons in college, not getting a chance to put up huge numbers as a junior. The entire starting 5 from that team, which won the national title in 2008, was drafted, so Arthur didn't get to dominate the ball. He wasn't quite as athletic as Robinson, but he was an excellent athlete in his own right who had developed into a two-way player with the ability to stretch the floor. In short, he was everything T-Rob is not.

Despite being in the league for 7 seasons, Arthur is still just 26 and he is only getting better. After adding a three-point shot to his game, he has been eating into Manimal's PT in Denver and he looks headed for a 10-15 year career in the NBA. Just imagine how valuable he would be for a team like the LA Clippers or his hometown Dallas Mavs, who desperately need a two-way floor spacer who can swing between the 4 and 5 off the bench. What does it matter if Robison's rookie contract was higher than Arthur's? He's fighting to stay in the league after Portland didn't pick up his 4rth-year option.

Self knows the deal with Alexander. He has the size and speed to make it in the NBA, but that's not enough, in and of itself. If he wants to have a successful career at the next level, he needs to model himself after Arthur and work to improve himself on both sides of the floor. This draft positioning stuff kind of misses the point with him. He will get a shot in the league. It will come down to what he does with it. You can throw away the recruiting rankings because Alexander isn't in the same discussion as guys like Karl Towns and Kevon Looney.

People are wondering why he can't dominate like Embiid, but he's just not that type of player. Even though Embiid had less experience playing the game, he was more polished than Alexander, who mostly tries to bully guys and dunk on them. His defense is even more of an issue, as he still has to learn how to protect the rim without picking up a lot of cheap fouls. Cliff picked up two fouls in the first few minutes of their loss to Temple on Monday and he would have picked up about 2-3 more if Self had left him in the game.

Self's system is suddenly the problem as if we didn't just see Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Ben McLemore be high lottery picks after only one season in college. If a freshman is ready to play at a high level, Self will put them in a position to succeed. Self did a great job of minimizing both Wiggins and McLemore's weaknesses when they were in college, which will become more obvious with Wiggins as the season goes on.

There are plenty of opportunities for both Alexander and Oubre to grab minutes. No one for Kansas is playing all that well now, which we saw in the 25 point drubbing they took at Temple before Christmas. At the moment, they look like one of the most vulnerable teams Self has had in a long time and there is a chance they don't win their 11th consecutive conference title.

With Perry Ellis entrenched at the 4, Alexander is fighting for minutes with Jamari Traylor and Landen Lucas at the 5. Oubre is one of several young wings, along with Brannen Greene, Devonte Graham and Sviatovslav Mykhailiuk, trying to establish themselves next to Wayne Selden and Frank Mason Jr. on the perimeter. Self is trying to win, so he's going to put the best guy on the floor. If Alexander and Oubre can't get huge minutes over other NBA prospects it doesn't necessarily mean that Self is holding them back. It may mean they are a little farther away than was initially expected. I'm much higher on Oubre than Alexander, but we shall see.

Self is not going to try and stop a guy from leaving if he's ready to go. He doesn't need any of them - if Alexander walks after one season, Traylor and Lucas can give you about the same level of production, especially with another year of experience under their belts. He's going to look out for what's best for his players because it's ultimately what's best for the program. The more guys who have long careers in the NBA, the easier it is for Self to walk into a prospect's living room and tell their family that he knows what it takes to get them to the next level. That's why Cliff Alexander is in Lawrence, so that Bill Self can coach his ass up and make sure he makes it to his second and third contracts in the league.

That's what matters, not where he lands on some mock draft in the middle of his freshman season. When it comes to the eventual outcome of his career, that shit is pretty meaningless. That's all Bill Self was trying to say.

1 comment:

  1. "There's no country in the coach that..." Pretty sure you meant to have those words switched. Good article and analysis. I think Self is also trying to say that mock drafts can give players a false sense for their future, and as you stated, no one knows the value of these players better than their coach.