Former NBA lottery pick Joe Alexander is living the life overseas

Former NBA lottery pick Joe Alexander is living the life overseas

Just beginning his eighth professional season overseas, former No. 8 overall NBA draft pick and now-international veteran forward Joe Alexander has been living the life. It’s one that’s taken him from China (where he grew up) to the United States, Russia, Israel, Italy, Turkey and France (and now back to Israel).

According to his agent David Pick, on Aug. 13, Alexander signed the most-lucrative free-agent contract in Israel outside of Maccabi Tel Aviv with Ironi Nahariya, making him the second-highest-paid naturalized Israeli player in the entire Israeli Basketball League. 

"It's obvious that they have a lot invested in me; that's the part that's good for me. I don't like to go places where I feel undervalued, to begin with,” Alexander told BasketballNews.com in a phone interview. “That was a mistake I made early in my career, thinking you could go places that don't really want you and work your way through the lineup throughout the course of 10 months, 12 months. I prefer to go to places where they demonstrate upfront that they're serious about me.”

Four games into the stint, he feels better about Nahariya than he’s ever felt about a team thanks to his teammates and the rest of the organization. As the 33-year-old has continued to get older, he’s gotten better as a player because he’s matured; at this point in his basketball life, he’s enjoying himself more than he ever had before.

“As an American basketball player, you have the sense that playing European ball is somehow bad; I just can't express [enough] how the life of a European basketball player is criminally good,” Alexander said. “It's so much fun. Guys in the NBA and the G League, they think that [Europe] is some realm of purgatory, some punishment for not making your numbers in the G League or the NBA, but it's not.

“[We] want to play in the NBA 'cause it's the life -- you're rich, you're famous, you're an athlete, you play a game that you tremendously enjoy, people idolize you, you get to play with your idols, you're free from the doldrums of other jobs that you can't see yourself being anything but miserable in. So in all of those criteria, European basketball is exactly that. It's like the things that you dream about as a kid, thinking only the NBA can provide that. It's not true. European basketball is exactly that."

In order to get to this point, Alexander had to learn the vast difference between playing in America and playing overseas, a realization that didn’t really hit him until his fourth season in Europe after his 2017-18 stint with Hapoel Holon. 

"I'd say the hardest adjustment is understanding that the game of basketball is a huge universe and the American basketball circuit is just one small galaxy,” he said. “So people might think that they have a handle on all of it because they've mastered that galaxy or been around that galaxy for a while, but that causes them to stay close-minded and they don't adapt. I'd say that's the biggest hurdle. So the actual details of what you need to adjust, they're not that difficult; it's recognizing that you need to adjust. That's what's difficult because you bring all of your expertise from the American circuit into Europe thinking that will work, but it doesn't. 

“And it might be 12, 24, 36 months into it that you're like, 'You know what, this stuff doesn't work. I need to throw it out and recognize that I'm starting from scratch.' That's difficult to do, you know? [When] you put in years as a pro in America, you value all of your wisdom and you might even regard yourself as a veteran, so to throw all that in the trash and say, 'I need to adapt completely,' not everybody is ready to do that."

Alexander won 2017-18 co-MVP, earned All-First Team honors in the IBL and received an invite to the Israeli National Team (but couldn’t participate due to a broken hand). Holon dominated and finished at the top of the standings, defeating Maccabi Tel Aviv in the Israeli State Cup. Holon would go on to take on Maccabi again in the league finals, but lost. (Alexander maintains if he didn’t get hurt, Holon would’ve won that rematch). Still, it was the most fun he’s had as a pro and it was a successful campaign from both an individual and team standpoint; Alexander recorded averages of 13.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 50 games with a 57.9 True Shooting percentage. 

“I just went into the [following] offseason with no offers that I thought that I deserved, and I just had to recognize that coaches and organizations are not looking at you the way that you think that they are -- and that applies in America as well, but it applies in a different way,” Alexander said.

When discussing how he adapted his game, Alexander provides this example: If you’re playing in one league, you might play 14 minutes each night. In that time on the floor, your specific team may only need, for instance, two offensive rebounds and a pair of screens set for them to consider you their starting big and worth the salary they’re paying you. In a different league, you would see those same numbers and figure that same player isn’t exactly starting-caliber.

“You have to reorient yourself to be like, 'This is what it means to be a good player,' as opposed to what you felt before like, 'Oh, what it means to be a good player is to do X, Y and Z,’” Alexander explains. "GMs and coaches, they don't care about that stuff. It's just tough to figure out what people really care about. In fact, a lot of the stuff that you think coaches and GMs care about, they might actually look at it and be like, 'That makes you someone I don't want.' 

“You have to figure that out; it's a Rubix cube. It's very difficult. And I would say that on top of that, there's a lot of players over here that have been figuring that out since they were very young, so Americans that come over at 25 are competing against guys who have been on the European circuit since they were 16. And they just laugh at us at how stupid we are, how arrogant we are, thinking we know how to orient ourselves [and] make ourselves attractive as players when, a lot of times, we're going in the wrong direction.

"It comes right back to being adaptable. Not having exposure to European basketball makes you a cold, hard rookie; I don't care what you've done in the G League or even if you've played in the NBA. And you can see it across the board with guys that come over here and are just shocked. That's not even to mention the fact that guys over here can play."

Alexander is proud that he’s come to grips with the adjustment. While he’s not naive to the fact that he could’ve and should’ve done things differently when he first made the overseas leap, he’s grown and still continues to improve even 13 years into his pro career.

Alexander grasped the different feel that international coaches have as well. While the NBA is a “players league,” the hierarchy of authority is much more level in Europe. Coaches are higher on the food chain there, working guys harder with longer practices and more rigorous training.

“They get in your ass more, they yell at you more,” Alexander said. “Best way to explain it is: it's a cross between NBA and college."

Perhaps a perfect case to illustrate that is Dusko Ivanovic, one of the most demanding Yugoslavian coaches of all-time. Ivanovic had a reputation for difficult regimens in Spain, taking his players to the mountains to run at 6 a.m. In fact, last season, a former NBA pro came over to play for Ivanovic and wasn’t strong-minded enough to stay the course, leading to his release.

Currently the head coach of Kirilobet Baskonia, Ivanovic coached Alexander for a year in Turkey with Beskitas Sompo Japan in 2018-19. Alexander says he got into the best shape of his life during their time together.

"Dusko is one of my favorite coaches I've ever had because he challenges you every single day. I wish that he would've been my coach right when I left college because he doesn't give you a minute to let yourself slack off,” Alexander said. “He runs you into the ground in a way that, for me, was one of the best things that could've happened to me; I rediscovered athleticism that I felt that I lost. I was really grateful to have him as a coach, to be honest. And what goes along with that situation is always that you're pissed off every day going into practice like, 'This guy is killing me.' That was a big part of it, too. But when you zoom out and get that 50-thousand foot perspective on it, you're grateful to have somebody like that pushing you."

The most enjoyable moment of Alexander’s career hasn’t come at one particular time. Rather, it’s when he’s sitting at home and decides to get back into the gym to work out; he strives to keep going and hone his craft, even when he doesn’t have to anymore. No matter what money he’s earned, the individual accolades he’s piled up or where he is, Alexander has stayed true to the game, which is the most valuable piece of his basketball life.

“I value it more every day, to be honest with you,” Alexander said. “Being a young kid doing that is fun because you're dreaming, but being a 33-year-old doing that just fills your soul because you know that this was all real from the start. From when you were young, this was all real. It wasn't a show. It came from a genuine place 'cause you kept it going for 20 years."

***

In 2008, Alexander shot up NBA draft boards in a hurry. His work ethic and impressive pre-draft workouts boosted the West Virginia product all the way up to the No. 8 pick by the Milwaukee Bucks. He recalls the excitement of that night vividly.

“The night after I got drafted, my agent threw me a draft party and there were tons of people there celebrating, cheers-ing and having a great time -- the first real time celebrating me as a basketball player,” Alexander said. “And I realized that I was about to be a celebrity, a very rich celebrity, because of my game.

“I didn't grow up as a highly-touted player. I didn't grow up as anybody that anyone thought would play college basketball. I was really even below-the-radar until the few months leading up to the draft, and so to kinda be like in this draft party with really famous sports broadcasters and famous coaches and famous players stopping by and the TV was on and just everyone toasting to me -- I think a lot of other players in that position had had a steady climb step-by-step to get there, but for me, it was like a plunge into the deep end. It was something I had never experienced before, and so that was my welcome-to-the-life moment."

Admittedly, Alexander felt the pressure of being such a high selection in the NBA Draft -- just not the type of pressure you would presume. He expected there would be highs and lows, just like there are for any young player transitioning to the Association -- maybe in a few years, his dedication and hard work would manifest itself in his development by outworking everybody, something he’s had to do his entire career by starting at the bottom and ascending to the top.

The reality was that the Bucks brought Alexander in to be the typical three-point shooting, heady forward archetype. Milwaukee’s expectation was that the organization drafted a player who was ready to contribute right away in lieu of a prospect who was a raw project. Despite the misunderstanding, Alexander did his best to manage and tried to catch up, sometimes even sleeping at the Bucks’ practice facility to prove himself. 

It wasn’t enough. Alexander played just 59 games in Milwaukee.

"I was a lottery pick who sat on the bench. I got DNPs. I only played 60 percent of the games until I was deemed not able to play in the NBA,” Alexander said. “And the reason for that is obvious. I'm not somebody that people look at and say, 'The sky's the limit for this kid.' People don't look at guys that look like me and say the sky's the limit for him. You either hit the ground runnin' or you're nothing, and that's the way that it worked, that's the way that it was."

The truth is that Alexander needed time; he wasn’t a shark born swimming. He had legitimate athleticism, a feathery mid-range jumper and real NBA size. While he thrived in a one-on-one setting (which helped him tremendously during the pre-draft process), he struggled when playing five-on-five.

“People didn't realize that about me, and I don't think anybody understood where I came from as a basketball player,” Alexander said. “I grew up in China; I didn't play organized five-on-five until I was, like, 16 years old. I didn't know what a pick-and-roll was until I was a sophomore in college. The only reason that I was ever on a team, on a court, in an NBA workout was 'cause I was the best one-on-one player in the world. So when pre-draft workouts came and they put us in one-on-one settings, nobody could believe what they were seeing. In fact, if I would've been allowed to work out with the other lottery picks -- 'cause they'd sit out at the workouts -- I would've gone No. 1 (in the draft). Everybody that I worked out with, I ended up getting drafted higher than them.

“The truth was that I was a hyper, hyper-talented player, but guys that look like me aren't regarded as being talented. We're regarded as slow. ‘If he could shoot threes, then he can get minutes.’ But that wasn't me...I don't regard [the situation] in the way that everybody does right now [like], 'Joe's a bust, he's a draft bust.' I know that's the word associated with my name. I don't see myself as a bust at all because I look at other busts who have had to deal with the pressure of that label and the pressure of performing and growing in the league, but they are granted three, four, five, six, seven years to do it. I played 59 games before I was labeled a bust, and I don't think that makes me a bust; I think that makes me an abortion."

The Chicago Bulls signed him the following season, but he was cut after just eight games. He didn't play another minute in the NBA.

Hindsight is 20-20. Alexander acknowledges that being put in a box made him bitter; he had never shot threes in his life, but was expected to be a sniper. Instead of focusing on getting better in that area, he doubled down on his strengths -- slashing, driving, creating -- of being multi-skilled. Looking back, Alexander knows he should’ve and could’ve handled things differently by adapting instead of ignoring what the general managers and coaches were asking of him.

Alexander made his mark in the G League (then called the D-League) with the Texas Legends in the 2010-11 season, putting up big numbers -- 20.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in a career-high 41 minutes per night. It was his first full stint in the developmental league, and he was the top power forward among his peers. A dozen players at his position were called up; not him. The next year, Alexander felt good about his performances in the first few months, but NBA teams apparently did not share the same feeling.

When asked about the recently-implemented two-way deals and Exhibit-10 contracts that help elevate G Leaguers to the next level, Alexander can’t exactly say if it would’ve changed his circumstances had those opportunities been available when he was there.

“All I can say is I played very, very, very well in the G League and nobody was interested, so that's where I have to leave it,” Alexander said. “Honestly, the reason that I came overseas was because I [didn’t receive NBA interest after playing well there]. I was a lottery pick. I had just broken my leg and sat out for almost three years, and now I was back, and I had assumed that the narrative would be that this is exciting -- an exciting opportunity for teams. 

“My first month back after this injury, I was the Player of the Month. I was killing it; I was definitely the best player in my position. And I got this offer from overseas and told my agent, 'There's no way I'm leaving. I worked my whole life for the NBA, and I'm an NBA player. Everyone sees it. I'm playing, I'm putting up numbers; why would I leave?' And he said, 'Joe, I spoke to every team in the league. Every team has a board with names on it and a list, and not only are you not near the top of the list; you're not even on anybody's board.' And I was just angry, and I said, 'Alright, then I'm out.' So that's how that shook out."

***

Regardless of his success overseas, Alexander isn’t holding out hope for a return to the states.

“I don't think that a 33-year-old in my position can come back and play in the NBA,” Alexander said. “I mean, I know my game is better suited for American-style basketball, but it's just not realistic to think that I can make the leap. It's just not realistic at this point.”

Alexander has shared the court with countless Hall-of-Famers and All-Star players, but there are many that stick out to him in his basketball odyssey. 

He always felt that Michael Redd, his former Bucks teammate, was an underrated player, and he was blown away by how good he was. In his overseas career, he’s played with a lot of guys -- players that casual fans and Americans have not heard of -- whom he claims could’ve been great NBA players, specifically his Maccabi teammate, Devin Smith (who is an assistant coach in the G League with the Iowa Wolves now after a stint as a player development coach with the Phoenix Suns in 2018-19). 

At West Virginia, Alexander swears that his teammate, Da’Sean Butler, is “one of the greatest missed opportunities in basketball,” saying that nobody on the outside will ever appreciate how talented the former Mountaineer swingman was. Injuries derailed Butler’s career.

Despite being 13 years into his career, Alexander is far from wrapping up his basketball life. He has taken these recent opportunities to bestow wisdom upon the American transplants from the NBA and G League. Figuring out that adjustment process earlier and quicker is advantageous.

“Picking up on that, basically as a rookie [overseas], was difficult because it takes time to learn, and I was already 28 at the time. So it definitely would have benefited me to be thrust into the European pro circuit when I was like 18 'cause then three years deep in it, you're 21 and you know the ins and outs,” he said. “People that don't play basketball and even people that play basketball in America, they can't really anticipate what it means to navigate the professional life over here. 

“I could write a thousand-page book about it, but it was a struggle. That’s the way that I'll put it, and not because of me; everybody struggles with it when they come over here. And now that I'm a vet in that regard, I try to help the younger guys.”

So Alexander, a man who now has a full-grown beard and a sleeve tattoo on his right arm (a far cry from the clean-cut kid seen in the NBA), will keep working on himself, on and off the floor. 

And if there’s anything that he’s realized after all these years hooping, it’s the value of relationships.

“As a young player, you never anticipate how being a better person affects your game and your career,” Alexander said. “The most obvious way is in your relationships, which are maybe the most important thing as a pro -- and not because people pull strings for you, but because you play better and your team plays better when you have solid relationships in an organization. That's why that matters. So the improvements in my game have really stemmed from my growth as a person, which I think has made me a better teammate.

"As far as on-court stuff, I could go on; it's an infinite number of things. But growing as a person, that's the thing people really overlook in players and their careers. And for me, it's the thing I'm most proud of because that's more difficult than going in a gym and working on skills."

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