Three years ago Joe Alexander was one of the hottest names at the 2008 NBA Draft, blowing scouts away with his athleticism and upside, ultimately climbing the board to number eight where he was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks. He was out of the league in two seasons.
Today the former lottery pick is starring for the Texas Legends where he has emerged as quite possibly the best player in the D-League, ranking 5th in scoring, 1st in rebounding and has the highest efficiency of any active player. In less than two months, Alexander has changed his public perception from a draft day bust, to one of the individuals most likely to receive a call-up and be a contributor at the next level. This revolution of sorts is a credit to both Alexander and the Legends coaching staff for recognizing that the forward was being utilized inefficiently as a rookie with the Bucks.
With his freakish athleticism and ability to face up and attack as a 6-8 forward, many thought Alexander projected as a small forward at the professional level. A closer examination of his time spent at West Virginia, paired with his subsequent performance in the D-League reveals that he is better equipped to operate as a “stretch 4”, a face up power forward who can score inside and outside. The Bucks, already with a crowded frontcourt when Alexander arrived, opted to stick him on the perimeter and convert him to a full-time wing. In theory it didn’t seem like a bad idea at the time, but Milwaukee should have recognized the problems this created for their lottery pick early on.
In college Alexander was hardly a threat to hurt teams from beyond the arc, attempting just 1.4 three’s per-40 minutes and hitting only 27% of them. That doesn’t sound like a player teams want chucking up shots from the outside, but with Milwaukee he turned into a spot up shooter, doubling his number of attempted three’s. According to data from Synergy Sports, nearly 30% of his possessions as a rookie were in spot-up situations, with Alexander settling to catch and shoot two-thirds of the time. What’s more, greater than one-third of all his jumpers in the half court setting came from beyond the three-point line. Taking a player with tremendous athleticism, the ability to finish around the basket, a track record for mediocre outside shooting and turning him into a catch and shoot player sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it?
Now to be fair, Alexander was still relatively new to the game of basketball, having only been playing for approximately five years by the time he entered the NBA, so there was plenty of developing left. But Milwaukee didn’t seem to want to wait for the rookie to come around. He was out of the Bucks system after one year and played briefly in Chicago the following season before landing with Texas this year. Enter the new Joe Alexander.
The first thing you notice about the forward is the significant muscle he has put on in his upper body. The athleticism is still there, but Alexander now looks more like a power forward than he does a wing player, having the necessary strength to overpower opponents inside and dominate the glass as he has been. Then there’s the possession break down which closely resembles how Alexander made his living in college with 25% of his touches coming in isolation and 25% coming in the post, as compared to 13% and 10% respectively in the NBA.
You can also look at his shot locations and see a drastic difference. Jumpers have dropped from 58% of his possessions to 48%, with post-ups more than doubling from 12% to 29%. Whereas he was trigger happy from the outside with the Bucks, Alexander is now a mid-range junky in the D-League, with 70% of his jump shot attempts coming from between 17 and 23 feet and only 9% from beyond the arc. The Legends are utilizing him in a fashion that plays to his strengths, moving without the basketball and taking advantage of mismatches in face up scenarios.
When isolating, Alexander gets the bulk of his touches in the high post and along the baseline. He has improved his shooting mechanics significantly, showing a quicker, smoother release which has resulted in a 44.5% shooting mark from mid-range, a great mark for a forward. Often times the mere threat of him attacking off the drive is enough to create space for him to get his shot off, especially now that teams are forced to play slower frontcourt players against him with the added strength he acquired in the off-season. Being able to isolate closer to the basket has also made Alexander a bigger threat off the dribble. For all of his physical abilities, he is only average when it comes to changing direction on the fly, something he was forced to do a lot when driving from the perimeter. In the D-League with a closer starting point, he has excelled, able to explode with one dribble and get to the rim and finish at an improved rate. He may be undersized as power forward in the NBA, but Alexander is quick enough and explosive enough to finish against bigger defenders.
The development of Alexander’s post game has centered around his turnaround jumper, a move that is difficult to defend due to how high he jumps and how quickly he spins off his defender. From an NBA standpoint he could be hurt in that this is the only consistent move he currently has in his repertoire, though not surprisingly Alexander often faces up and attacks off the bounce when he works on the block as well. Frontcourt defenders simply can’t consistently stay in front of the third-year pro and while elite NBA defenders will certainly fair better in this regard, Alexander has shown enough as a passer to indicate he will be able to create scoring opportunities for teammates when driving.
Where questions still remain are at the defensive end. Alexander is only an average defender, particularly when he is forced to guard perimeter players. His lateral quickness isn’t good enough to cover most NBA wings, but again should he be utilized as a power forward he does a solid enough job defending the pick and roll. In the post he is physical and has enough athleticism to contest shots in an effective manner, ranking as one of the D-League’s best defenders on the block allowing just .69 points per possession with a high usage rate.
There’s no question Alexander redefining his game has allowed him to start realizing the potential he showed coming out of college. He has been a remarkably consistent player, scoring at least 16 points in all but two games this season and has already made a good impression at the Showcase with a 21-point, 10-rebound, 6-block stat line in the Legends loss to New Mexico on Monday. He may never be a prominent player in the NBA, but for teams in need of a role player who can serve as a face up power forward, Alexander may be exactly what they are looking for.