Josh Alexander’s rise from warming the bench to starring for the Eagles
Junior forward’s performance a bright spot in a strange season
Editor's Note: This article appeared in The Eagle's March 2021 virtual print edition.
Playing with and against high-level Division I competition was never foreign to junior forward Josh Alexander. On the AAU circuit in high school, Alexander played alongside five-star recruits Bryan Antoine and Scottie Lewis, who currently play at Villanova and Florida, respectively. And after transferring from his local public school to Iona Prep in New York City’s Catholic High School Athletic Association his sophomore year, he would match up against guys like Moses Brown, a center on the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Kofi Cockburn, one of the best players in the Big Ten for the University of Illinois.
“It was definitely an adjustment for the first year or so [at Iona], getting used to a different style of play,” Alexander said. “It’s not just guys that lived in your district. It’s guys coming from the city and from all over. … When I was at a public school my freshman year, I was the tallest guy or next tallest guy. But when I came to the CHSAA there were guys that were seven feet tall.”
After the adjustment period, he would improve to become a 1,000 point scorer for Iona, and a two-time CHSAA all-league member. And with his commitment to AU, he would be one of five players on his Iona team to play Division I basketball.
But Alexander only played sparingly during his first two years at AU, averaging just over 10 minutes per game in each of his first two years playing behind veterans Mark Gasperini and Yilret Yiljep. While it was certainly an adjustment to playing so much in high school, Alexander considered it a worthwhile learning experience.
“With Mark and Y.Y., I learned so much from those guys my freshman and sophomore year, they taught me a lot,” Alexander said. “They were always talking to me trying to help me out. And even just watching them play in the games while I was on the bench, learning what moves work and what moves don’t, and taking bits and pieces from each of them.”
Coming into his junior year with a lot of uncertainty as to who would step up and fill the voids left by the seniors who graduated the year prior, Alexander knew that he would need to step up and fill the big man role for the Eagles.
“I felt like coming back here,” Alexander said, “I knew since Mark and Y.Y. weren’t going to be here, that I had to step up, and I wanted to make sure that I was ready.”
Alexander’s rise began over the summer while quarantining with his family in New York. Most gyms were shuttered and the area’s usual basketball workouts were scarce, but he found ways to stay in shape and improve his game. He ran around in his street. He did push-ups and situps in his room. And when he returned to AU in September, he was in excellent shape.
Now, Alexander is in the midst of a breakout year. Posting career-highs across the board, Alexander’s play this year for the Eagles has been one of the bright spots in what has been an otherwise pretty bizarre season for AU.
“He’s a worker,” AU men’s basketball head coach Mike Brennan said about Alexander after a Jan. 23 victory over Loyola. “As limited as to what he could do at home all spring and all summer, he came back in tip-top shape. He puts in the work every day in practice. He’s just a pleasure to coach. He’s obviously put a lot of work into his game, and he feels pretty confident down there.”
After Gasperini and Sa’eed Nelson’s departures, much of the scoring slack went to seniors Jamir Harris and Stacy Beckton Jr. But Alexander, with his nifty footwork and wide array of hook shots and up-and-under moves, has provided steady offense for the Eagles in the paint.
After only scoring in double figures four times across his first two years, Alexander hit that mark in three of his 10 games, culminating in a career-high 19 point outburst against Navy on Feb. 20. His performance almost single-handedly willed AU back into the game, which it had trailed by double-digits.
“For me personally it's not really about the points necessarily, or even the rebounds,” he said. “I think it’s just leaving an impact on the game. Even if I didn’t score at all, post defense, grabbing rebounds, getting other guys the ball even if it's not an assist. All the things that you don’t really see.”
As a big man in a rotation that features mostly guards and wings, Alexander’s beyond-the-box score production is vital. Alexander has gone toe-to-toe with the Patriot League’s physically imposing big men like Loyola’s Santi Aldama and Golden Dike and Navy’s Richard Njoku, all while trying to control the paint.
“I’m definitely up for the challenge, going up against guys that weigh 20 or 30 pounds more than me and have like two or three inches on me,” Alexander said. “I definitely enjoy the challenge. But then again, my teammates are always helping me … even when I’m on offense, it makes it easier for me because they can all shoot the ball really well.”
Those same teammates have taken notice of Alexander’s ascent. And while his scoring output has been impressive this year, Alexander doesn’t really see himself as a score-first player. He considers playmaking as his biggest strength on the court, and in Brennan’s Princeton offense where it is almost a necessity for the big men to be good passers, he is allowed to play his game.
“I’d rather get an assist than really score,” Alexander said. “But I think, just me running the offense, a lot of this stuff runs through the center … I definitely enjoy it. I think it allows me to really play my game, and not just kind of stick to one thing.”
AU’s 11 game postponements could have stalled momentum for someone like Alexander, who is in the middle of a breakout year. But while those feelings of frustration would be valid, Alexander instead focuses on the way this season has brought him and his teammates closer together.
“During the off-season, we were always constantly talking in the group chat we have, just about funny stuff we see on Instagram, TikTok, or whatever it is. And we always had group FaceTime calls over the offseason,” Alexander said. “But now, besides during the quarantine periods, we were always going out to eat, playing cards and watching other college basketball games. Always together and enjoying each other's time.”