'Proving the doubters wrong' seems to be a common theme among this year's young Trail Blazers squad.
Whether it's Damian Lillard's drive to lead the franchise following the departure his four fellow starters from last season's 51-win season or CJ McCollum showing he's ready for starter's minutes, it's apparent that this season will be a proving ground for the majority of the Portland roster.
But perhaps no player has more to prove in 2015-16 than rookie forward Cliff Alexander. Before his freshman season at the University of Kansas, the Chicago born and bred forward was a highly touted as a projected lottery pick. But after injuries and a season-ending suspension plagued his brief college career, Alexander went undrafted in June before landing on the Brooklyn Nets' Summer League roster and signing with the Trail Blazers in July.
"I definitely have a chip on my shoulder," Alexander said. "Going from a top-five pick to being undrafted is a big thing, but I’m gonna continue to work, continue to stay dedicated to the game."
Alexander impressed his teammates and coaches early on in training camp, but an unfortunately timed knee injury sidelined the big man for all of the preseason and start of 2015-16. But Alexander worked hard to get back in shape, eventually making his NBA debut on November 15 in Charlotte helping fill out the rotation at power forward in the absence of the injured Meyers Leonard.
Alexander has appeared in three of the four games since, making up for the time the time he lost in preseason.
"It felt real good playing my first game at Charlotte," Alexander said of his debut. "It felt real good just to get the butterflies out of my stomach... I feel like I’m a little behind because of [the injury], but I’m gonna continue to work my butt off to try to get better."
Added head coach Terry Stotts: "He’s getting his sea legs. He’s a little anxious. One game, I thought he played very well and stayed within himself — I think it was in Charlotte. He didn’t try to do too much; I thought he was effective. It’s tough going in there for three or four minutes and making an impact, but I think he’s acclimated himself pretty well."
At 6-8, 240 lbs., Alexander provides an NBA frame somewhere in between LeBron James (6-9, 250 lbs.) and Draymond Green (6-7, 230 lbs.). Stotts hopes the 20-year-old's skill develops with experience.
"He’s a dynamic athlete," the head coach said. "He’s rugged inside, has long arms, can finish around the basket. For him, it’s really an adjustment for him. He just turned 20 years old and hasn’t had a lot of experience, so it’s a matter of just getting comfortable out there. This is a year for him to grow."
For Alexander, going from high school to college to the pro game and the adult lifestyle that comes with it in less than three years has been an adjustment as well. Away from his family, the former Kansas Jayhawk's new Trail Blazers family has provided support when he's needed it.
"Being on my own, living on my own without having my mom all up behind me like she was when I was in college — it’s a lot different. I’ve had to mature a lot," he said.
"I get support from everybody on the team. They’re trying to lead me down the right path and help me with the little things I need to do."
On the court, Alexander is working to improve his all-around game to be impactful as a rookie while getting his fitness back.
"I just want to get better," Alexander said of his immediate goals as a pro. "Work to get a consistent jumpshot. Run the floor, get my wind back up under me."
Though it may be in namesake only, Alexander has already earned a familiar nickname from his teammates in Rip City: "Uncle Cliffy." It's way too early to compare the young Alexander with former Portland great Cliff Robinson, but Stotts hopes Alexander can live up to the title.
"I hope [Alexander lives up to the nickname]," Stotts laughed.
"Uncle Cliffy was pretty good."