Maybe it was the highlight reel dunks or the intensity he always plays with, but something about him just made him fun to watch.
The first time I ever saw Cliff play was in Champaign, ironically enough. It was at the Parkland Shootout as a sophomore. I'd heard he was going to be a good one, but back then he was just so raw skill-wise. One thing wasn't in doubt at all though. This guy had some power.
At one point in the game, Cliff tried to throw down an alley oop from behind his head jumping nearly vertically from the block. As crazy as it sounds, he almost pulled it off. The ball shot off the rim and went up into the stands, but Cliff knew he almost put one epic dunk down.
Jerrance Howard, an Illinois assistant at the time, was sitting under the hoop, and immediately after the dunk attempt, Cliff just looked over at Jerrance and gave him this huge grin as if to say "Bet you don't have a guy that can do that."
At that time, Cliff didn't have much of a jump shot to speak of. His hands weren't bad, but he still had a tough time securing rebounds. His shot blocking was already on the rise, but he hadn't learned how to block shots consistently without fouling, so he was in and out of games a lot.
Fast forward to the spring of 2012 now. Curie's season ended and Alexander started running with D-Rose on the AAU circuit. The first tournament of the spring was in Merrillville, IN. I watched Cliff play in front of several D1 coaches including new Illinois assistant Jamall Walker, Michigan State assistant Dane Fife, and Kentucky head coach John Calipari.
Cliff was starting to show improvement in a lot of areas of his game. Obviously defense was a little more relaxed than it was during the high school season, but Cliff was still playing with the same motor and intensity that he had always played with during the season. What might have impressed me most was that he was playing for both the 15U and 16U team that weekend, so he would play considerable minutes in one game, only to run to another court to take the tipoff in another.
I never questioned Cliff's endurance, and I think pushing himself in practice and through the spring helped him get used to playing high minutes the rest of his high school career. And while he really stood out in those areas, one thing about that event took the cake. I'm sure you all heard about that one time when Cliff destroyed a backboard, right?
I left an hour before that happened to get back home, but when it happened, my phone lit up like the Vegas strip. Cliff Alexander had officially arrived on a national stage.
But that was just the start, and Cliff kept getting better and better. His junior year, he became more of a vocal leader on the floor for his high school team. Early on, they had some ups and downs, but as the season went on, it was Alexander commanding the ball, and when he got it, he finished.
The most noticeable change in Alexander's ability between his sophomore and junior years was his ball handling. His passing had improved as well, but Cliff was able to face up defenders far better than he ever had. Adding that dimension to his game was, well, a game-changer for him. Now defenders had to respect him as more than just a power dunker and shot blocker. His skill game was coming along in a hurry.
Cliff continued the monster slams, emphatic blocks, and tough interior defense and rebounding all year, and it all led to the showdown everyone was waiting for. It was a packed house at the Argo Sectional on the south side of Chicago. Every year that sectional was stacked, but this one was prime time. Jahlil Okafor, the nation's #1 prospect in the country in 2014 versus Cliff Alexander, and I had some of the best seats in the house at courtside.
It was like a prize fight. Two competitors who came in with all of the success and accolades you could think of about to square off head to head. By no means am I downplaying the importance of their teammates, but those two put on a show. Shot blocks, huge dunks, and the crowds were going nuts.
In the end, Whitney Young edged out Curie and ended Alexander's season, but what I saw out of Alexander that game was a guy who was on the verge of cementing himself as an elite. I watched a guy go from a raw, quiet, and sometimes out-of-place big man to a skilled big man who led his team when they needed him.
That spring, those two adversaries became teammates as Cliff and Jahlil joined forces on the AAU circuit. However, early in the spring, Okafor went down with an ankle injury, and rather than let it slow him down, Cliff took that opportunity and blew up.
For 3-4 weeks, Alexander was almost unstoppable, racking up top performer awards at almost every stop of the EYBL circuit. Luckily, I got to catch him at the stop in Minneapolis the last weekend of May. Any time he played, I was blown away by how much he continued to improve. I'd seen him do a lot of great things before, but for a guy who was labeled as a dunker and strictly an inside player, I watched him step out and hit mid-range shots.
And then he swished back to back threes and threw up the "three-goggles" at myself and a couple of the other recruiting reporters I was with. Not only was Cliff dominating, but he was also having fun while he was doing it.
Now, he's at the onset of his senior year and set to make his college choice public Friday afternoon at his high school. His recruitment has been a roller coaster, to say the least. Kentucky and Michigan State were early favorites for a long time, but as time went on, Illinois and Kansas became more involved. DePaul surprised a lot of people when they got the first of his official visits, but why not? It's in his hometown.
And while Alexander's destination isn't really clear just hours before his announcement, one thing is crystal. He did one hell of a job of throwing people off of his trail, especially over the last few months. He distributed positive comments about each of his finalists in various interviews, took several visits (some in plain sight, some more incognito), and, his personal favorite, worked Twitter like a champ.
With thousands of fans hanging on every word he posted on social media, Alexander knew he could really mess with people. Heck, I asked him in an interview this summer if he liked messing with people. At first, he tried to play it off, but he broke down pretty quickly and admitted it.
But if you had hundreds of people tweeting at you every day, it could get a little tiresome. A little attention is good, but it can get overwhelming, so why not try to throw people off and keep them guessing. After all, it is HIS announcement and he wants it to be HIS big moment. Plus, for the fans, it makes the suspense all that more.. well, suspenseful.
Are you ready? Or does Cliff still have you guessing?