Centers of Attention
Elite post players highlight the Under Armour Summer Jam.
by Danny Hazan / @DeeHaze24
Cliff Alexander’s job on the court for the Mac Irvin Fire is simple.
“My role is to dunk the ball,” Alexander said. “They want me to dunk the ball every chance I get and break the rim. So that’s what I do, and block shots and rebound.”
During the Fire’s two games Wednesday and Thursday at the Under Armour Summer Jam presented by NY2LA Sports, the 6-8, 240-pound Alexander was up to his task even though he didn’t tear down any of the rims at Homestead High School in Mequon, WI.
Ranked sixth overall in the high school Class of 2014, the Curie High (Chicago, IL) product locked down the paint in the Fire’s two wins over Texas Select and Sports U. Summer Jam event organizer Antonio Curro gave hoops fans and the hundreds of college coaches in attendance alike a treat as Texas Select features blue-chip 6-11 center Myles Turner and Sports U is anchored by 6-10 Kentucky-bound post man Karl Towns.
But Alexander says whether it’s Turner, Towns or a scrub at the park, he’s going to bully them in the paint. He doesn’t possess the shooting touch that extends out to the three-point line—which both Turner and Towns utilize—but his ferocious disposition, nose for the ball and explosive leaping ability off the floor gives him an edge few can match.
“I go out every time regardless of who my opponent is and try to outwork them and outplay them,” Alexander said. “I’ve always played like that. I have to come out like that and be different from some bigs, because they don’t have what I have—so that’s what I do.”
“Going up against someone like Cliff, you have to bring a little something extra because he’s a pretty physical guy,” Turner said.
Fire coach Mike Irvin, who has been plugged into the circuit for the last two decades, offered some insight as to what allows Alexander to excel in such a ‘simple’ role—a role that has led to him having his choice of attending Kentucky, Illinois, Louisville, Florida, Arizona, Memphis, Michigan State or Kansas to try and wreck the rims in college.
“Cliff is a throwback player,” Irvin said. “I haven’t seen a player like Cliff in a long time. He’s like a player from back in the ’80s where he’ll play anybody, anywhere, anytime. Regardless of what the competition is, he’ll give 110 percent every time—and that’s what separates him from everyone else his age. The rest of the team feeds off that. He’s our man. When he comes with that energy, the whole team comes with energy.”
Besides his opponents, and college coaches watching, Alexander’s style of play also caught the eye of New York City’s five-star shooting guard Isaiah Whitehead (Lincoln/Juice All-Stars) who caught one of the Fire’s games before Juice tipped off. When asked about who he thought was the most impressive player in the loaded tournament, Whitehead didn’t need much time to ponder his answer.
“He just goes hard every play,” Whitehead said of Big Cliff. “He goes after rebound and it seems like he gets every rebound.”
Alexander, Turner, Towns and top rated big man in the Class of 2015 Stephen Zimmerman (Bishop Gorman HS/ Dream Vision) are all competing in the Summer Jam, which wraps up Sunday afternoon.
The country’s current No. 1 rated player, Jahlil Okafor (Whitney Young HS) did not play with the Fire Wednesday or Thursday after he and Alexander teamed up at the Peach Jam the previous week. They are expected to play alongside each other in the Fire’s frontcourt during the final live period of July, however.
Since joining the Fire from his former club team, the D-Rose All Stars, Alexander has enjoyed the switch.
“It’s been a great experience,” Alexander said. “There’s great competition in the EYBL and at the Peach Jam. But playing in practice against Jahlil, you have to come out ready to play because he’s big and strong.”
Alexander’s relentlessness in fighting for position in the paint led to some double-fouls in both games he played in at the Summer Jam, but following some dust-ups with Towns during their game it was all love afterward.
One of the things that almost all the elite level high school players share, and has almost every major college program hot in pursuit, is that competitiveness and unwillingness to settle on their already immense talent.
“If you’re playing against a family member, you have to go hard against them—you have no friends on the court,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman, a 7-foot lefty, is playing up in the 17’s division and scored 27 points in Dream Vision’s first-round playoff win.
Though not as powerful, or strong, as Alexander, Okafor or Towns, Zimmerman plays with the same nasty streak that can be dangerous for opponents considering how skilled he is. Zimmerman’s squad is in Saturday’s sweet 16 and his ability to finish around the rim with either hand, knock down shots from the perimeter, pass out of the post, block shots and rebound defensively has been on full display.
He capped his 27-point performance by beating the other team down court, catching a pass on the run in transition, taking a dribble then using a spin move before he threw down a two-handed dunk on a defender who fouled him.
“I love making big plays like that,” Zimmerman said. “I think we were up by three or something with like two minutes left, and I had to help my team out and get them hype so we could come out with the win.”
Turner’s Texas Select squad fell to a tough Michigan Hurricanes team in the round of 32, concluding the 6-11 center’s stay in suburban Milwaukee.
Despite getting bested by Alexander when he got pinned too deep in the paint a couple times, Turner showed why he’s blasted up the national rankings and collected more high major college offers than he knew what to do with.
He deadpanned that he had ‘trimmed’ his list of 60 offers to 25. Kentucky coach John Calipari watched Turner play for the first time at the Summer Jam, but the Wildcats have yet to offer. Almost every other big time program has, but the only thing Turner knows for sure is that he will visit Kansas on October 4 for Late Night in the Phog.
Turner is a devastating shot blocker, and averaged nearly six a game through his four games at the Summer Jam. Besides his defensive prowess, Turner has a smooth stroke that extends all the way out behind the three-point arc as well as a handful of moves facing his defender up in the post. The combination of everything he does on the court was the catalyst of his gigantic rise up the national rankings since the spring began.
“I’ve always had an outside jumper, but I’ve been working on it a lot,” Turner said. “It’s what I do. It’s starting to come around. I’ve always been a defensive presence, but I really think my timing is better on blocking shots.”
“I envision myself being a player like LaMarcus Aldridge, having a nice face-up game but still being able to mix it up in the post. As I get into college and as time comes, I’ll add strength so I think that will be big for me.”
New Orleans Pelicans cornerstone Anthony Davis’ rise from a no-name to a No. 1 recruit thanks to a huge growth spurt was well documented. Turner missed most of last spring and summer with an ankle injury, so he was off all the college coaches and rankings sites’ radars.
It’s not as if he’s making up for lost time this summer, however, because he said having to be sidelined helped develop what he can do on the court now—and what’s led to all the attention.
“Through everything, last summer I played in a couple tournaments and that was my first time ever playing on a big scene,” Turner said. “So I was a little disappointed, but I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. I was able to sit back and add a good 40 pounds of muscle, and was able to watch people play. I’m not really too concerned with rankings and all that, but it’s nice to know where you stand with other people in your class.”
Now that he’s arrived in both the top-10 lists, and the recruiting hot list of college basketball powerhouses, he said he’s just trying to enjoy the ride.
“It means the world to me,” Turner said. “It’s just been a real good experience for my family and me. I really respect the fact these people are out here to say I’m one of the best players out here. It pushes me to work harder. I’m appreciative to go to some of these camps and tournaments and go up against some of the best players in the country.”