Joe Alexander tries to find his way back


Feb 23

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Joakim Noah was standing near center court the other day at the end of Bulls shootaround in Washington entertaining a few teammates with some tales of life with a pony tail.

Taj Gibson and James Johnson listened raptly, smiling. Once the drills to prepare for the upcoming team conclude, players separate into groups to shoot free throws, usually a few dollars riding on the result to maintain the interest. Others sit on the side getting some treatment. Some begin meandering toward the bus. Kirk Hinrich bellowed out, “C’mon, Jo. Let’s go!” Time to get back to the hotel for a meal and a nap. The longer they chatted the later the bus.

Tom Holbert would be the last one. He’s sort of the mother hen, a tough one, to be certain as security chief, making sure no one was left behind and no one from outside was in the way.

“This way,” he said to Joe Alexander, who was sitting on the scorer’s table as the Wizards maintenance staff began to prepare the court for the game later that evening.

“I’ll be staying, Mr. Holbert,” Alexander responded. “I’ve got some more shooting to do.”

It was perhaps something of a metaphor for Alexander’s life thus far as an NBA top 10 draft choice.

He’s been left behind and is trying to work himself back.

As the Bulls face the Indiana Pacers back at the United Center Wednesday, Alexander will have had his work for the day done, watching and hoping for one day to again be part of it all.

“I’ve dealt with this like I’ve dealt with it in the past because I’ve gone through this before,” said Alexander, something of an extra in the John Salmons/Hakim Warrick trade. “Just remembering if I work hard and stay focused and don’t give up I’ll come out on top and be fine again. That’s how I’ve dealt with it, which hasn’t been easy.

“But I don’t feel completely slighted where I didn’t get an opportunity,” Alexander quickly added. “My rookie year (with the Bucks) I did get 12 minutes a game. And I certainly didn’t make the most of them. But I also didn’t think that warranted not picking up my (third year rookie contract) option.

“It’s gonna be what you make of it,” Alexander continued. “It definitely was shocking and at times depressing (to be the No. 8 overall pick and be declared a free agent after two seasons). But if you don’t have those things in life it won’t push you to excel and succeed and it is. In the end I hope it is good for me.”

The Bulls are taking a look at Alexander, a 6-8 combo forward who is a rare athletic freak.

Yes, white men can jump.

He can dunk from the free throw line. His vertical jump is about 42 inches as he can jump and hit his nose on the rim, assuming there is any need to. Despite two years of injuries, he hasn’t lost any of his explosiveness that made him the fast rising sleeper of the 2008 draft.

“I don’t understand why,” Alexander says modestly, as he does everything else. “For some reason, I can jump higher than when I was hurt. It’s not something that has gone away, which I’m happy about. It’s something that should help me in the future.”

The Bucks gave up on Alexander and he was put into the Bulls deal for salary reasons with an expiring contract. It’s unlikely he’ll play much, or at all, the rest of the season with the Bulls. There’s little time for experimentation now in a playoff race. Alexander knows and understands. But he also knows teams like the Bulls gutting their rosters for free agency will need to fill their roster with perhaps a half dozen cheap, undervalued players this summer.

So perhaps he shows them something in practices or in the summer.

“There definitely will be an opportunity the end of this season,” Alexander believes. “I know people view my career as some sort of downward spiral. I don’t think that’s the case at all. I feel there will be someone who wants me. I hope it’s the Bulls, that they’ll see something and want me to come back.”

There should be something there. Alexander is a unusual athlete. But he also can shoot, about 35 percent on threes in his limited time as a rookie. He played a lot out of the post in college. So the rap was he couldn’t handle the ball on the wing to play small forward. But he insists he always has been a slasher and showed well in draft workouts.

He’s certainly smart and articulate and has been renowned as a worker and, as Monday suggests, when others are sleeping he is working. Of course, when others are playing he is watching.

Alexander was something of a later starter in basketball, spending most of his youth in China, where his father worked for Nestle. He speaks Mandarin and returned to the U.S. for high school at 14. He didn’t do much and went to military school after high school and then to the U. of West Virginia, where he really wasn’t much factor until his junior season and a big NCAA run, which led him to declare for the NBA draft.

Remember that cute movie, “There’s Something About Mary,” a clever title to express certain unique charms? Perhaps contrary, there’s something about Joe Alexander. He should be an NBA pro. He’s 6-8 and about 230, a dedicated worker who while not exactly smooth looking can shoot, run the court and jump. The Bucks invested boldly in him. He was the first draft pick of the new administration of John Hammond and Scott Skiles. Yet, they let him go after two seasons, a rarity for a lottery pick. And for a new management trying to make a statement with its first major personnel move.

Alexander seems to have the skills and the intelligence. It should work. It hasn’t yet.

Now, Alexander does have his share of good reasons.

He came to the Bucks having played through groin and abdominal injuries in his final season in college in leading West Virginia to a surprising Sweet 16 spot with wins over Arizona and Duke. The Bucks decided to deal with it early and Alexander missed training camp and sat out the first two months of the season. And as everyone knows, the NBA moves on. It was a new team with changing rosters, injured veterans coming back and going and the demands to succeed immediately in a small market.

Alexander stayed in Milwaukee all summer after his truncated rookie season and felt he was making progress. The staff seemed happy. He then tore his hamstring and missed training camp again. He came back briefly, but then did it again and was out for three months. He went to the D-league for a time, hardly lighting it up but with a 23-point effort in his penultimate game. It was option deadline time for the Bucks and given their economic difficulties they took a pass and decided to let go Alexander.

“I wasn’t expecting it at all,” Alexander admitted. “When they drafted me they told me I was known as a project. Not a huge project, but with big upside and a lot of potential. Despite not having a productive first year, since I improved so much in the offseason and was better in summer league I thought they’d take that into account and recognize I was on my way to fulfilling that upside they saw. So I was kind of blindsided by it.

“It was disturbing because I knew I deserved to have an extension because from a skill standpoint I knew I was able to play in the league,” Alexander said. “It was frustrating to work so hard in the summer and to be expecting a lot that second season and the injury takes that away.”

So Alexander works and tries not to become one of those guys you wonder what happened to.

“The Bulls said they see something in me,” Alexander said. “They told me they liked me in the draft process and were intrigued. I understand they did not bring me in to play big minutes this year. More for curiosity for them, taking a risk and hoping it pans out.”

We were done and Alexander was ready to go back to work. I thanked him for his time. He called me Mr. again and thanked me for the interview. I sure hope he makes it back. We don’t get to see many like him.

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