Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Proving Them Wrong: Alexis Markowski Is Showing Everyone She’s For Real

February 06, 2022

The questions were out there.

Will she be able to play like that in college? Will she be able to stay healthy? Will she be in good-enough shape to play in the Big Ten?

There was no shortage of skepticism surrounding Alexis Markowski and how her game would translate from the high school level to Power Five basketball. There were eye-popping stats and back-to-back Class A state championships at Lincoln Pius X High School, but she didn’t always compete against players with her 6-foot-3 size and strength.

One National Player of the Week and five Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors later, and Markowski has proven the doubters wrong. Against conference competition, she’s leading the team with 16.5 points per game on 54% shooting and is second in rebounding with 6.8. She’s scored double figures in nine straight contests and recently set career-highs for points (27 against Iowa) and rebounds (15 against Rutgers). In the first season where the 3-point line was moved back to 22 feet, 1¾ inches, Markowski, once thought to be a post player only, is shooting 60% (14-of-23) from behind the arc and stunned everyone by going 6-of-7 on Iowa’s home court.

Markowski is impressing folks. That includes her old high school coach, Ryan Psota.

“I knew she’d make an impact on their (Nebraska’s) roster, I knew she could play for them,” Psota said. “I didn’t know how she would fare against the Big Ten, with the size of kids they have and how she’d do offensively. I knew she could compete with them—she’s one of the most tremendous competitors I’ve ever seen. Like I’ve told people time and time again, the bigger the moment, the better she plays.

“But I didn’t know that she’d have that kind of offensive impact right away.”

The road from high school freshman who couldn’t play sports to Big Ten Freshman of the Year candidate hasn’t been easy—Markowski has come a long way in her brief basketball life. By the time she was in junior high, her dad, Andy Markowski, himself a former Nebraska basketball player, college coach and current Pius X assistant, saw that his daughter had potential as a basketball player beyond the prep scene. She had the height and reach that others didn’t. No one was shoving her around. She had the hands, the physicality and the motor.

But at the same time Andy saw Alexis learning and developing as a basketball player, adversity hit. Alexis had a navicular stress fracture, which, according to footcaremd.org, is a crack or break in the navicular bone, the boat-shaped bone in the middle of the foot. Screws were inserted into Alexis’ foot the August before her freshman year at Pius. It kept her from running, jumping, lifting, conditioning—basically everything an athlete needs to do.

The road back to 100% was a long one. Alexis wasn’t herself until about a year after the injury, Andy said. In volleyball and basketball, high school girls usually get recruited younger than when the boys do.

“That set her back a little bit in terms of people not seeing her for a year,” Andy said of Alexis’ injury. “And really, it took her a year to get back into shape and be the player she was before that.”

Once she was healed for her sophomore year, it was full steam ahead on the volleyball and basketball courts. Alexis started looking like her old self while competing for her AAU basketball club, Nebraska Lasers, where she faced the level of competition she wouldn’t always see in high school. She originally committed to South Dakota State in early 2019 before Nebraska put the full-court press on.

There were plenty examples of Alexis doing well against the best recruits in the region. In the summer going into her senior year, she had 32 points and 17 rebounds with Maya Nnaji guarding her. The 6-4 Nnaji is No. 9 in the HoopGurlz’s 2022 recruiting rankings and committed to Arizona.

Alexis’ development was stunted at times in high school. It’s hard to show post skills when you’re getting double- and triple-teamed as soon as you touch the ball. Psota said she’s always had the post footwork and skills. But they weren’t always on display in high school.

“You have to remember, in high school anytime she caught the ball she had three or four bodies around her,” he said. “She really wasn’t able to be patient and maybe put the ball on the floor. She had to catch it and put it up.”

That’s not not the situation at Nebraska, though. Alexis is surrounded by elite shooters like Jaz Shelley and Ashley Scoggin. If defenses choose to double her, that opens the possibility for an open 3, and the Huskers are shooting 35.5% from beyond the arc this season, 30th in the country. Scoggin is a 42% 3-pointer while Shelley’s at 40% and Annika Stewart 35%.

“I was anxious to see how it would project with one-on-one post matchups—could she be strong enough? But I had a gut feeling she was going to be able to help them (Nebraska) as a freshman, especially in rebounding. I thought she was a college-ready rebounder her junior year in high school,” Andy said. “But the consistency of her offensive success has been the biggest surprise. I knew she could get some points in the paint and rebounds just because she’s athletic and aggressive. But her ability to score consistency against the best posts has probably been a pleasant surprise.

“She’s a little ahead of maybe where I thought she’d be this early in her career.”

There’s no doubt Alexis’ game has seen growth. That makes sense, because for the first time in her life, she’s focusing on only basketball. As a multi-sport athlete at Pius, her time was divvied up between volleyball and basketball. Now that she’s giving her full attention to basketball, Andy is starting to see improvements in footwork, her touch around the rim and her overall ability to expand what she can do on the court.

One of the developments is her 3-point shooting. While it may appear to be a new and unexpected emergence for many, Alexis’ ability to stretch defenses has always been there. It just wasn’t needed much at Pius. Why mess with something that isn’t broken, right?

“To be honest, we probably limited that (3-point shooting) in high school, just because we knew that nobody could stop us,” Andy said. “For two years, throwing the ball to Alexis on the block was a winning formula. Why would we let her run around on the perimeter?”

Said Psota: “The whole thing as a coach is, if she makes the first one (3-pointer) she can shoot the second one. And if she makes the second one, she can shoot the third one. But if you notice, once she misses she’s probably going back to her normal game. But when she gets in a rhythm, she’s as good as there is.”

When it wasn’t game day, Alexis was always working on her perimeter shooting. Her strength has allowed her to stay consistent with her shot behind the arc, even when the 3-point line was moved back.

“It’s not like it just started—she’s made threes for years. It just wasn’t through our high school system,” Andy said. “People didn’t see that in the winter, so everybody’s like, ‘Well, she can’t do this and she can’t do that,’ and I just kind of chuckle, because people who know basketball that saw her in the summer knew her game was more expansive than maybe what she was able to do in high school.”

Having a former college basketball player as a father obviously helps, too. The two have ongoing basketball conversations, and when Alexis wants to go more in-depth, Andy will do that. If she wants to voice frustration, he’ll listen and offer feedback as someone who gone through what she is.

Before the Michigan game earlier this season, Andy and Alexis threw on film of the Wolverines’ reigning Big Ten Player of the Year, Naz Hillmon. The Huskers picked up the 21-point win over a top-10 opponent, and Alexis had 20 points and seven rebounds on an efficient 7-of-10 shooting from the field.

But at the end of the day, Andy understands his place.

“I constantly ask, ‘What’s Nebraska want you to do,’ or, ‘How are they telling you to handle a ball screen,’ and I try to give pointers to what they’re asking her to do,” he said. “But there are times where my wife tells me I’m her dad, not her coach, and we need to keep that relationship as well. But basketball’s been a big part of our relationship, our family. All our kids play. I want to think I can add value when they’re ready to have those conversations.”

And it’s true basketball is a big part of the Markowskis. Alexis’ mom, Jaime, is good friends with Becky Hammon, a basketball lifer who was hired as the head coach of the WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces in December after being an NBA assistant under longtime Spurs coach Gregg Popovich since 2014. The Markowskis already have a trip planned in August to watch an Aces game and visit with Hammon, who was in Andy and Jaime’s wedding.

When Psota watches what Alexis is doing on the Big Ten stage, it’s a gratifying experience. It shows that there is homegrown talent in the Huskers’ backyard who are able to help and, in Alexis’ case, flourish. Ditto for Nebraska’s other true freshman, Allison Weidner, who has gone from dominating the Class D-2 basketball courts at Humphrey St. Francis to being an impact player with the Huskers. Alexis and Weidner combined to score 18 of Nebraska’s 23 fourth-quarter points in a win over Penn State on Thursday.

“It’s good not only for me, but for other coaches here in the state of Nebraska to see that we do have kids who can compete at the big level like a Power Five conference,” Psota said. “But I think there were a lot of naysayers going into her freshman year, saying, ‘Well, she was just big in high school, I don’t know if she’ll ever get anything done at the college level.’ But she’s really worked hard, improved her craft and gotten into better condition.

“She’s proven a lot of those doubters wrong.”

Andy knows his daughter is in good hands with the Huskers. He said the team culture is where it needs to be and there’s a certain connectiveness that’s easy to see. The Markowskis usually watch home games directly across the court from the Husker bench. That’s where he watches as a dad.

“To sit there and watch your child compete at a very high level and have success has been super rewarding,” Andy said. “We just hope that it can continue, not just for her personal success, but the team has a chance to have a great season. That’s even more exciting.”

The questions were there when Alexis signed with the Huskers. So far, they’ve been answered.

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