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The Joe Alexander Project

Charles Gardner wrote yesterday about Joe Alexander's performance against Denver, which makes this as good of a time as any to consider the 8th overall pick's development as a rookie.

"I thought he was aggressive, and he drove the ball hard to the basket a couple times," Skiles said of Alexander's play Sunday. "I feel like he's still leaving shots on the table. There are times the ball is swung to him and he's open and he could just shoot it in rhythm.

"But he's shot-faking and trying to do things a little bit too quick, that's all. But that will come with experience."

As a perpetual optimist--and it seems you have to be either that or self-loathing to stick with this team--you could certainly see some good things in Alexander's performance last night.  He had a terrific block at the rim on Nene and showed his athleticism on a quick drive and two-handed dunk early in the fourth. And while his jumper needs more consistency, his ball-handling isn't bad and his court vision is good--especially for a fairly raw guy who made his name in college mostly as a post player.

Now for the downside.  For one, you can tell that positioning on both ends is still a problem for him, which fundamentally inhibits his ability to contribute.  On offense he often looks a step slow in adjusting to where he's supposed to be, constantly hustling around to restore spacing.  His decision of whether to post or work the perimeter often doesn't seem to consider the size of the guy who's guarding him.  With the ball he often looks decisive when he decides to drive--but runs into trouble when he can't beat his man cleanly.  In spite of his tremendous elevation, he often gets blocked when trying to get off a mid-range shot simply because his footwork and awareness of the defense isn't quite there.

Defensively, Skiles has seemed wary of playing Alexander against pure threes, which makes sense given Alexander didn't typically defend perimeter players in college last year.  It's possible he's just not quick enough laterally for many small forwards, but it's difficult to say for sure given that he hasn't had much experience defending 20 feet from the hoop.  Instead, Skiles has mostly matched him against combo forwards or undersized PFs with more of a tendency to spot up.  Against Denver he saw most of his minutes against Linas Kleiza, while his best game as a pro came matched up mostly against Udonis Haslem.  Playing against PFs also brings the benefit of letting Alexander use his quickness in defending pick and roll plays, and his block rate is second only on the team to Dan Gadzuric. 

The biggest red flag about Alexander's potential at the 4 has been on the glass.  Though solid for a 3, his rebounding (10.2% of available boards) has been poor by PF standards, despite seeming to have the bulk and athleticism to at least be respectable in that department. He doesn't seem to have natural instincts for putting a body on his man or knowing where the ball might go, which is a problem given that most rebounds are collected below the rim.

All this bears itself out in the numbers as well.  Looking at his 82games splits, there's not a whole lot to feel good about.  The Bucks have been better offensively and defensively without him on the floor, and his opponent stats are poor at both forward positions.  Interestingly, his opponent rebounding numbers are actually quite good, though I'd speculate that's largely because Skiles doesn't play him against bruising, power PFs.  His own production has been notably better at PF, though we're talking about relatively small samples and he's not always playing against traditional PFs in the first place. 

What now?

Fortunately, you don't have to tell Alexander any of this.  Sparky at WSSP had a good interview with him after the Denver game where he was very candid about the difficulties of adjusting to the NBA. 

"I had a really poor start to the year, and I only have myself to blame for that.  I don't think I was as receptive to the coaches as I should have been." 

In hindsight no one would have passed on Brook Lopez or Marreese Speights given what we now know about the 2008 draft class.  But bemoaning the Bucks' draft mistakes is easier than figuring out what Alexander might eventually bring to the table. 

After reading this, you might consider me something of a skeptic, but in reality there's nobody I'm rooting for more than Joe.  You can tell he wants to be good and will do what it takes to get there, and it's tough not to appreciate guys like that. Though he hasn't earned regular minutes thus far, I'm still holding out hope he can improve his confidence and consistency in the final months of the season. 

On the positive side, Alexander has the athleticism and work ethic to make it in the NBA, not to mention a reasonable skill level.  Whether he can develop enough feel for the game is another matter, a point often argued in discussions about his late blossoming. Then again, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute faced similar challenges in picking up basketball relatively late, yet his feel for the game is probably his greatest strength.  Can Alexander be taught what is often instinctive for others?  Probably to some extent.  But for now it's still not clear if we can consider Alexander a building block for the future or a project who's unlikely to overtake even his fellow rookie Mbah a Moute for rotation time.  Deciding which scenario is more likely will be a crucial task for John Hammond and company this summer as the Bucks try to sort through the luxury tax pinch.