CHEER UP JOE ALEXANDER, THERE ARE SIX BIGGER BUSTS THAN YOU
Synopsis: At the conclusion of his junior season at West Virginia, Joe Alexander led the Mountaineers to better-than-expected finishes in both the Big East and NCAA tournaments. Peaking at the right time, he went from relative obscurity to a lottery pick in a matter or weeks. As the 8th overall pick by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2008 Draft, Alexander fulfilled his lifelong dream of playing in the NBA. Unfortunately, his dream was short-lived because he was out of the league after scoring fewer than 300 points in 67 games. In retrospect, he likely peaked too soon because his professional career might have been much different with another year to develop in college. Due to his inability to play in the NBA, Alexander has been selected as the #7 NBA Draft Bust.
#7 NBA DRAFT BUST: JOE ALEXANDER
The path to the NBA for Joe Alexander was unlikely as any other. He was born in Taiwan and spent most of his formative years (i.e. from 5th to 10th grade) growing up and playing basketball in China. Desperately wanting to play Division I college basketball, he attended Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia for a post-graduate year because his best offer came from Randolph-Macon College (a Division II school perhaps best known for being one exit south of Kings Dominion off I-95). Alexander didn’t get much playing time at Hargrave given the 11 other Division I prospects on the team, but he still was able to earn a scholarship to play at West Virginia for John Beinlein. While at WVU, Alexander progressed nicely each year, before hitting another gear leading up to and through the 2008 post-season tournaments. Based on a strong close to the season, as well as an incredible showing at the combine, Alexander left school early and entered the 2008 Draft as a projected lottery pick.
Whereas Alexander seemed to come out of nowhere, he showed steady improvement as a player throughout his time in college.
JOE ALEXANDER – STATS AT WEST VIRGINIA
|Shooting %||Per Game Averages|
Mostly a benchwarmer as a freshman, Alexander really started to contribute to the team as a sophomore. In particular, he scored in double figures in 20 out of 36 games and averaged 10 points and four rebounds per game for the season. After the season, West Viriginia’s coach made a bee-line to fill the vacancy at Michigan, so the school hired Bob Huggins as a replacement. Alexander blossomed under Huggins and finished in the top 10 in the Big East Conference in both points and blocked shots per game. Heading into the final month of his junior season, Alexander looked like a promising prospect for the 2009 Draft. Based on an incredible finish to the season, he became a top prospect for the 2008 Draft.
While March Madness generally refers to the NCAA Tournament for branding (i.e. money-making) purposes, I believe the excitement surrounding the tournament begins a couple weeks earlier as the automatic bids for conference champions start to get decided. For me, college basketball and March are inseparable. Essentially, the only month during which college basketball has relevance is March, and only sport that has relevance in March is college basketball. Based on that sentiment, Alexander picked the absolute best time to shine leading up to the draft. During the month of March 2008, Alexander recorded at least 30 points in three games and 10 rebounds in four games on his way to averaging 24 points and 8 rebounds in WVU’s final nine games of the year.
According to draftexpress.com ‘s 2008 mock draft, Alexander went from being an undrafted player to a mid-1st round pick after leading his team to the 2008 Sweet Sixteen. Perhaps most impactful for the scouts was his 22-point, 11-rebound, 3-block performance in an upset victory over #2 seed Duke. West Virginia suffered an overtime loss to Xavier one week later, but he was able to maintain his projected draft position after recording 18 points and 10 rebounds. Over the next few weeks, Alexander’s draft stock dipped a bit even though he was recognized as 1st Team-Big East and All-American Honorable Mention. However, things began to change again after pictures and videos of his freakish athleticism started to surface.
Joe Alexander – The Freak
At the NBA Combine in early June, Alexander continued to demonstrate his athleticism by finishing second among all participants in three separate tests of strength, speed, and jumping ability.
- Strength: He benched 185 pounds a total of 24 times, which was more than DeAndre Jordan (8) and Brook Lopez (7) combined.
- Speed: He ran the 3/4 court sprint in 2.99 seconds, which was better than both Derrick Rose at 3.05 seconds and Russell Westbrook at 3.08 seconds.
- Jumping ability: He had a maximum vertical reach of 12′ 1/2″, which was higher than Jordan (by 1/2″), Lopez (by 1″), Rose’s (by 6″) and Westbrook (by 8″).
Based on the combine, Alexander’s stock continued to rise and he moved into the conversation as a potential lottery pick. Initially, I was concerned that Alexander draft position might have been driven by three activities that didn’t include a ball, a basket, or a defender. After all, we know how useless the combine was for evaluating Kevin Durant given that the league’s future MVP wasn’t particularly strong (i.e. he couldn’t bench press 185 lbs even once) or fast (i.e. his sprint time was 3.45 seconds). After viewing the following montage of assorted highlights, I became convinced that Alexanders athleticism transferred onto the court as well. The highlight reel gets repetitive after a while (it’s basically a power dunk and block fest), but you should be able to see pretty quickly that he wasn’t just a gym rat. Then again, I’m not a scout so I don’t know if he was simply a great contributor to SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays or actually could play basketball.
Interestingly, draftexpress.com (as well as 9 out of 12 other mock draft reports) projected Alexander as the 8th overall pick, which was exactly where he went. In addition, the website commented that he had the upside of a more athletic Matt Harpring and the downside of Damien Wilkins (Gerald’s son and Dominique’s nephew). Well, let’s see how it did with that prediction.
NBA STATS FOR PLAYERS LINKED TO JOE ALEXANDER
|Draft Pick||Team||Player||Games||Points||Rebounds||Assists||PPG||RPG||APG||Win Shares|
|1998 (#15)||ORL||Matt Harpring||665||7,645||3,366||907||11.5||5.1||1.4||41.9|
|2004 (-)||MIA||Damien Wilkins||563||3,571||1,346||787||6.3||2.4||1.4||12.2|
|2008 (#8)||MIL||Joe Alexander||67||282||120||44||4.2||1.8||0.7||0.5|
Before you scoff (like I did) at the thought of a team wasting an 8th overall pick on someone with the upside of Harpring, you should realize that the former Georgia Tech player averaged 14 points and 6 rebounds per game during a 6-year stretch and maxed out at 18 points and 8 rebounds per game for one season. For all players taken with a 6th-10th overall pick, Harpring represented someone around the top 30% while Wilkins represented someone around the bottom 30% so using those players to bracket a best case / worst case scenario was reasonable. Unfortunately, Alexander fell far short of the worst case scenario by finishing in the bottom 2% of all 6th-10th overall picks from the last 45 years.
When I started researching potential Top 10 NBA Draft Busts, I thought Alexander would only be an Honorable Mention. Granted, his junior year averages of 17 points and 6 rebounds per game were good for someone playing in the highly competitive Big East Conference, but not necessarily commensurate with an early 1st round draft pick. In essence, I thought he might deserve an exemption because the excitement surrounding his final month of the season and his combine results led to an overreaching pick. Then, I read an article by David Pick for basketballinsiders.com which contained the following quote by Alexander.
“Ultimately not being in the NBA is on me, but as far as ‘who is a bust?’ you have to look at Milwaukee and the management that drafted me. If you want to label anyone with the term ‘bust’ — it’s the Bucks. When Milwaukee drafted me, I was touted as a ‘project’ and someone with a lot of potential who could contribute had I learned to play the game. That’s what the Bucks told me. I needed time. I didn’t start playing basketball until I was 16 years old, but I was the most athletic guy in the entire draft. The Bucks knew that. Everyone understood this. I could’ve been drafted by any other team in the league and they would’ve given me time to develop.
In case you missed it, Alexander believes that the Bucks should be labeled a “bust” instead of him. Well, my opinion changed completely at that point. I get it that no one likes being labeled a bust, but his attempt to shift the blame was completely delusional. Still, let’s see if his argument that the Bucks ignored its young projects carries any weight.
Of note, Milwaukee drafted only two players in the 2008 Draft: Alexander in the first round at #8 and Luc Mbah a Moute in the second round at #37. Interestingly, both players were basically the same age (Mbah a Moute was three months older) and approximately the same size (Alexander was one inch taller), and both were listed as small forwards going into the draft. Whether because he was better suited to change positions or in deference to Alexander as the earlier draft pick, Mbah a Moute was moved to power forward. Both players came off the bench behind veteran starters (Richard Jefferson at small forward and Charlie Villanueva at power forward) to start the season; however, Mbah a Moute ultimately got to start after Villanueva moved to center because Andrew Bogut got injured (go figure). With more than twice as much time on the court (26 minutes vs. 12 minutes) Mbah a Moute easily outperformed Alexander during their rookie season.
Rookie Stats for Joe Alexander and Luc Mbah a Moute (2008 Draft Picks by the Milwaukee Bucks)
|Per Game Averages|
|Luc Mbah a Moute||MIL||82||46.2%||72.9%||5.9||1.1||1.1||0.5||
Given that Jefferson was traded to the Spurs after the season, Alexander was poised to become the starting small forward. In the 2009 summer league, Alexander stepped up by averaging 17 points and 6 rebounds in 32 minutes per game (versus 8 ppg and 4 rpg in 30 minutes for Mbah a Moute), but the Bucks were not impressed. First, the team traded for Carlos Delfino, who was returning to the NBA after a year in Russia. Second, they declined the 3rd-year option on Alexander’s rookie contract. Despite recovering from a hamstring injury that sidelined him at the start of the 2009-10 season, Alexander never played another game with the Bucks. Instead, he was assigned to the Fort Wayne Mad Ants in the D-league after publicly questioning the team’s commitment to him by not picking up the option, .
Even though Milwaukee gave up on Alexander, Chicago showed an interest and traded for him as a back-up to Luol Deng. The outcome, however, wasn’t much different as he only played in eight unproductive games for the Bulls throughout the remainder of the season. As a free agent that summer, Alexander got signed by the New Orleans Hornets, but got waived two weeks in into the regular season without even getting on the court. To be fair, he only scored a total of 7 points and grabbed a total of 10 rebounds in 50 minutes during six pre-season games, so the Hornets presumably had seen enough.
To his credit, Alexander was willing to play in the D-league (click for a background of the “League of Broken Dreams”) and joined the Texas Legends for the 2010-11 season. With Texas, he put up impressive numbers (20 ppg and 9 rpg) in 49 games and earned 1st-Team D-League honors. Based on his performance, he was able to get a contract with a Russian team, but was sidelined after only six games with a stress fracture in his left tibia. Alexander initially hoped that rest would suffice, but ultimately he needed surgery. After two years of recovery, he was signed by the Golden State Warriors but got waived before the regular season started. Again to his credit, Alexander went back to the D-League to play for the Santa Cruz Warriors.
As the following table shows, Alexander put up respectable numbers throughout his time in the D-League.
JOE ALEXANDER NBA D-LEAGUE STATS
|Shooting %||Per Game Averages|
Even though Alexander was having a productive season with Santa Cruz this past season, he realized that his options in the NBA were non-existent. In a moment of clarity, he lamented to basketballinsiders.com reporter David Pick,
One season, there might be just 10 call-ups. The next season there could be 35 call-ups, and then there is the factor of who sticks in the NBA? I worked real hard this season to put up another five-or-seven points and grab at least three more rebounds each game, but NBA executives would look at the numbers and be like, ‘Who cares?’
Any empathy I felt for Alexander disappeared when I reread an earlier quote by him in the article. In particular, Alexander pined, “I didn’t start playing basketball until I was 16 years old, but I was the most athletic guy in the entire draft. The Bucks knew that. Everyone understood this. I could’ve been drafted by any other team in the league and they would’ve given me time to develop.” I had read numerous stories about Alexander’s incredible work ethic and his desire to practice non-stop as a youngster in Beijing (obviously before he was 16), as a high school player in Maryland/Virginia, and as a college player at West Virginia. If his lack of organized basketball was a problem that would later become an excuse, he should have stayed at WVU for another year with Huggins. For as much as he tries, Alexander legitimately cannot blame the Bucks (or any of the other teams which gave him a chance) for his lack of preparedness to play in the NBA.
Joe Alexander as the Blue Crayon
In one of the more interesting sections of the basketballinsiders.com article, Alexander made a veiled complaint about reverse discrimination when he said, “There’s an element in the basketball culture, especially in the NBA, that looks at clean-cut guys like myself and assumes what we can or can’t do and that followed me throughout my NBA career.” Any charge of discrimination is not a laughing matter, but Alexander’s reaction to it was. Specifically, he decided to emulate former “clean-cut” guys like Mike Miller and Chris Andersen, who changed their hair and got tattoos to change other people’s perception of them.
Birdman – A Muse for Joe Alexander
Joe Alexander – Birdman in Training
When describing his arm sleeve, Alexander said, “I got the tattoo because I was sick of people telling me to shoot three-pointers and I was sick of people telling me to not put the ball on the floor or attack the rim, because that’s my game.” Furthermore, he commented, “In college, I was a bruiser and it was understood I was going to knock people around, and that I was super-athletic and super-skilled. But in the pros, it’s a different culture. It’s assumed, no matter how many times we hit people, that clean-cut players are soft – and I was so sick of that. I want my image to reflect who I am as a basketball player.” I don’t know which part of the quote is more amusing: the self-congratulatory claim of being “super-athletic and super-skilled,” or the belief that he needed to get a tattoo to show that he wasn’t soft.
As the following table shows, the 2008 NBA Draft class was consistently good with some positive outliers (i.e. Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Love), but only one negative outlier (i.e. Alexander). With respect to posterity, Alexander should be glad that he wasn’t drafted before Rose, Westbrook or Love because his failure would be even more recognized.
JOE ALEXANDER AND OTHER NOTABLE PLAYERS FROM THE 2008 NBA DRAFT
(Totals updated for 2015-16 season)
|PF||37||MIL||Luc Mbah a Moute||541||3,411||2,435||492||6.3||4.5||0.9||20.0|
[Note: I originally wrote this post expecting that Rose would return to his All-Star form after recovering from a string of injuries. The former #1 overall pick played more than 60 games during the 2015-16 season for the first time since his 2010-11 MVP season. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem likely that he will return to the greatness he once showed on the court. Instead, it appears that he will finish his career in the 3rd quartile (i.e. between the bottom 25% and 50%) of all players taken first overall. Regardless, the analysis off Joe Alexander hasn’t changed. If anything, the selection by the Bucks appears worse given the success of lower draft picks like Brook Lopez and Serge Ibaka.]
Joe Alexander was given chances with at least four NBA teams (not to mention others which invited him to try out but didn’t sign him). Each one determined that he wasn’t worth the time or effort to keep him on the team. Clearly, the definition of a bust is subjective because it relies on a player failing to live up to expectations. However, I’ve tried to make the evaluation as objective as possible by relying on a player’s achievements before and after the draft. As someone who could dominate other college players but failed against real NBA players (i.e. not D-Leaguers), Alexander objectively was a bust. He still is a very talented player who can dominate inferior talent, but he has flaws in his game that get exposed when playing against the best players in the world. For me, that makes Alexander the poster child for a Top 10 Bust.