Cliff Alexander comes out of nowhere.
It's a funny thing to say about a 6-foot-9, 240-pound teenager who spends most of his time on the court dunking and screaming. It's an unusual thing to say about a player ranked No. 3 in his class by RecruitingNation, a player who, on the day he decided to play college basketball at Kansas, sat at the center of a packed-house announcement ceremony broadcast by ESPNU, one that featured a video of international players testifying about the times Alexander embarrassed them on the block. It's not often you say as much about a person with the power to make hundreds of thousands of Illinois fans irrationally angry by pretending to put on a hat.
It's not the kind of scouting report you give about a player expected to step into Bill Self's front line as a freshman, replace Joel Embiid -- the NBA draft's third overall pick -- and ensure the Jayhawks' 11th-straight Big 12 title.
And still, it's true. As Alexander embarks on what is almost assuredly his lone season of college basketball in Lawrence, Kansas, the big man's paradoxical ability to exceed ever-higher expectations might be the key to the Jayhawks' season.
"When I first stepped on the court, I didn't know what I was doing," Alexander said. "I was terrible."
This is also true: Before eighth grade, Alexander didn't play organized basketball. That's a late start by any developmental standard. It's almost unthinkable for the south side of Chicago, which has produced a remarkable number of professional stars in the past 10 years. Typically, great young players are discovered by the time they're in fourth or fifth grade. They're exposed to the world before their 13th birthdays. They're drilled by trainers, bred for success, groomed for the attention that will come with it.
Alexander played his first daily basketball in eighth grade. As a freshman -- when crosstown star Jahlil Okafor was already nationally recognized as a future pro -- Alexander sat out the first 10 games of his career at Curie High School with a heart murmur. When he did play, he came off the bench but made little impact. But as the season wore on, and Curie pushed deeper into the state playoffs, Alexander began to dominate. It almost happened overnight.
"As soon as I got to playing every day, it just came naturally to me," he said.
Then he just kept getting better. Local writers named him one of the best prospects in his class. He went to camps, dominated and impressed scouts and coaches who saw him. Then he returned to Curie as a sophomore and played against Jabari Parker, and that's when he knew.
"There were a couple of games, playing against Jabari, and I saw: Hey, I'm getting better," Alexander said.
From there, the story took a turn for the familiar. Alexander's games became televised, must-see matchups. He played against Okafor and acquitted himself well. Camp appearances, accolades and a steady climb up the national recruiting rankings followed. The recruiting circus -- coaches calling and texting and selling and pleading -- kicked into full force. ("That was crazy at first, but I got used to it, and since then I've just been chilling," Alexander said.) By this past November, when Alexander announced his decision to attend Kansas -- and broke Illini hearts the state over -- the idea that a player with this much hype could have arrived so late to the party seemed ridiculous. But it's true.
"He's a sponge," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "He's got a great attitude. He wants to be coached. He wants to be drilled."
The question now is whether Alexander's development curve can stay on its hockey stick pace. This summer, Self didn't just wave farewell to top overall pick Andrew Wiggins. He also found himself without the nation's best center, Embiid, and senior graduate transfer Tarik Black, who provided loads of size and rebounding in a reserve role the past season.
Fortunately, he has an intriguing mix of players with which to fill the rather noticeable gaps. Junior forward Perry Ellis is a polished post scorer. Self said he expects Ellis to be the team's leading scorer and will play him in different spots on the floor (including away from the rim) to generate more offense. Wayne Selden, the less heralded, third wheel in 2013's recruiting coup, is a major sophomore breakout candidate (whom Self will play both at the three and the four). Kelly Oubre, a 6-foot-7 wing with guard skills, should get a fair share of interior work. And then there's junior Jamari Traylor and Arkansas transfer Hunter Mickleson, and those are just the forwards.
With all this size, you'd think Self would be feeling pretty good about his team's chances of owning the low block. But he isn't. It's his biggest concern.
"I don't know how well we can defend inside," Self said. "I don't know how well we can score inside. We've always been a team that played on angles, but it doesn't look like that's coming quite as naturally for this group as it has for some of the other teams we've had."
That is where Alexander comes in. Last season, Embiid morphed from an intriguing prospect into a thoroughly savvy big man on an almost game-by-game basis. (Few things in the 2013-14 season were more enjoyable than watching Embiid go from never dribbling to dream-shaking in a matter of weeks.) Alexander is a different player. He's strong, compact, aggressive. He's the kind of player who, despite his size, doesn't really look like he's going to dunk the ball on a simple drop-step four feet from the rim -- and then he raises up and does it and surprises you yet again. But he is, above all else, raw -- rawer than Embiid.
Thus, Alexander has spent the first few weeks of practice learning "meat and potatoes stuff," Self said. The high-low offense Self runs -- which seems perfectly suited to an Ellis-Alexander combination on the front line -- relies on spacing and angled passing and intelligent movement away from the ball. Alexander admits the nuances of the college game and the speed at which they are executed have surprised him. He knows his footwork, which he said was "terrible" in high school, needs to get better. Conditioning has been a shock.
"He's not playing good yet, because he's thinking," Self said. "He's a pleaser. He wants to try to please and do exactly what we want him to do, and sometimes when you think your feet get a little slow. ... He's got a lot to learn.
"It's amazing to me, no matter how good you are, you come to college and get humbled. Wiggins got humbled. Joel got humbled. They all get humbled."
It's another paradox for the self evidently awesome yet still somehow surprising Kansas freshman. On the one hand, the plan is to step into very big shoes, at a very big school and make sure that school can rebound, defend and score its way to another Big 12 title. The baseline is already high.
On the other hand, few seem to be talking about Alexander as an All-American candidate. Even in October, his own coach wasn't sure how long it might take Alexander to really dominate on the offensive end. Other freshmen in his class -- from his friend, Okafor, to the platoon-bound mess of talent down at Kentucky -- have gobbled up most of the preseason headlines.
"His high school coach did a phenonomal job with him, but it's a totally different deal [in college]," Self said. "I think by the end of the year, he could be one of the big, harder guys to deal with in our league. But offensively, it's going to take a little time."
Through some strange calculus, Cliff Alexander has somehow returned to a place where few can see him coming. The strength of Kansas' interior might well hinge on his ability to exceed even higher expectations. If he fails, it would be the first time.