By JEREMY WOOSpecial to ZAGSBLOGMINNEAPOLIS — Not many teams can overcome the loss of their best player and still dominate a game.
Thanks to Cliff Alexander, the Mac Irvin Fire doesn’t have to worry about that problem.
The 2014 star and Chicago native stepped up in a big way at Saturday’s EYBL session after Fire center Jahlil Okafor, whom many consider the top recruit in the country, went down with an ankle injury in a morning matchup with All Ohio Red.
On the back of Alexander, also rated as one of the top post players in his class, the Fire went 2-0 to start off their weekend. Just one more win will clinch a spot for the squad at the Peach Jam in July.“I had to step up,” said Alexander. “The big fella went down, tweaked his ankle a little bit and I knew I had to step up for him. I thought I did a pretty good job.”
With 20 points and 8 rebounds against All Ohio, the 6-foot-8, 225-pound Alexander ably covered for Okafor. But he truly shone in the afternoon matchup with CIA Bounce, scoring 27 points to go with 14 rebounds in an 83-59 blowout victory. The most impressive part wasn’t as much what he did, as how he did it.
Every time you looked up, Alexander seemed to be dunking. He displayed advanced post moves and an improved jumper, draining a pair of second half threes and making it look easy. Although he’s always been an impressive prospect, Alexander showcased a versatility that even those familiar with his game hadn’t seen before.
“I’ve been working on my post moves, a little bit of my ball handling and my jump shot,” said Alexander. “Coaches have been saying I’ve developed a lot. I can shoot the jump shot, run the floor, rebound and block shots.”
As Alexander’s game has expanded, his recruitment has ramped up. Interested parties include Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan State, who have made Alexander a top priority. It’s widely believed to be a three-horse race for Alexander’s services.
In-state suitors Illinois and head coach John Groce hope the Chicago Curie star will anchor their frontline in a major way next year.
“They’re telling me they want me bad,” Alexander said. “They’re going to develop me into a stretch-four. Coach Groce is a great guy—he’s funny, he cracks a lot of jokes. We’ve really built a nice relationship.”
Kentucky and John Calipari have similar plans, and already have highly rated center Karl TownsJr. in place for 2014. Alexander sees himself as compatible with the Wildcats’ plans.
“They want to develop me, get me like a Terrence Jones and I’m looking forward to that. [Karl Towns] and I can play together—he’s a five and I’m a four. We’ll work from there.”
Finally, Michigan State and its staff have also made a strong impression on Alexander. There’s a strong chance he could don green and white, thanks to the relationships he’s built in East Lansing.
“I like coach [Tom] Izzo, I’ve gotten to know him well. They’ve got a good coaching staff—coach Fife and coach Stephens are great guys. I get along with the players well too, Gary Harris is one of my close friends.”
Interestingly enough, some high-profile friends could join Alexander at his eventual destination. The potential Tyus Jones-Jahlil Okafor package has been well documented, and Alexander says he’s discussed joining them. Versatile forward Justise Winslow has also been part of these conversations.
Should they join forces, the group of 2014 stars will put the hoops world on notice. The mere possibility has fans’ mouths watering. If it happens, expectations will be high—and Alexander isn’t shying from them.
“Me, Jahlil, Tyus and Justise have all talked about it,” he said. “It would be a scary sight. We’d win a national championship with that team.”
Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.