The risk of Alex Len and his future with the Suns

PHOENIX – Judging or grading the draft the night of doesn’t lead to any sort of accuracy. Many Phoenix Suns fans were disapproving of the Alex Len pick at No. 5. It certainly wasn’t the sexiest pick, definitely ran the same risks as most of the other top-10 prospects and didn’t get much, if any, applause from national writers.

The poor draft grades divvied out to the Suns by national writers was especially hard to understand since Len was viewed as the darkhorse No. 1 pick – instead it became Anthony Bennett.

But the Suns believe they got a cornerstone for the future. Potential is one thing, but so is the fact that big men comfortable with their bodies are a highly sought after commodity. If anything, the former gymnast fits that mold.

“I started doing gymnastics when I was young, really young, like 8,” Len said. “I was doing it for like three years and my high school coach told me in the gym – the gymnastics gym – he took me to a basketball gym and gave me a ball and said, ‘Shoot it.’ I shot it and made it. He said, ‘See, you belong here.’”

Phoenix hopes he continues to belong.

How’d it happen?

Ryan McDonough first watched Len in 2010, when the then-17-year-old was playing in the Under-18 European Championships in a stuffy gym in Vilnius, Lithuania.

“I think there were 32 people there,” McDonough said. “I didn’t know Alex. You could see the raw physical package. I was intrigued by him then.”

Len competed with the likes of fellow 2013 draftee Rudy Gobert and current Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas, finishing in the top-5 of that competition with averages of 16 points per game, 11.4 rebounds (second behind Valanciunas), and first with 4.3 blocks through nine games. His Ukrainian squad finished third-to-last out of 16 teams, but Len’s name was suddenly on the map.

Joining the Maryland Terrapins, Len’s college statistics on a team attempting to return to its past success were underwhelming.

“You can look at his production at Maryland, you know, he didn’t get the ball enough – we felt,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said.

Phoenix liked him all along. They told him before the draft they’d take him if possible, and McDonough even inquired about moving up to make the grab. But as the draft unfolded, it became more clear Len would fall into the Suns’ laps.

“When we all looked at the guys and ranked them, he was consensus – by all of our guys – he’s got the biggest upside,” Hornacek added. “That size, that skill level, I think you take the best player available at that time. Is it the best for tomorrow? Maybe even still then, it’s the best for tomorrow.”

What’s expected in the near future?

Testudo Times, the SB Nation Maryland Terps blog, believes Len will be a very good NBA center but shouldn’t be expected to make an immediate impact. The Suns, who likely will be again facing a tankable roster, could play him to test that theory out.

“I wouldn’t classify him as a project,” McDonough said. “I think Alex is already skilled. He needs to get stronger but he has gotten stronger since the season ended. A lot of that comes with age. I don’t think he’s done growing.”

Len’s stress fracture in his ankle became a controversy because of how the Maryland training staff initially overlooked it on X-rays – a good summation of the issue is over at Pro Basketball Talk. The silver lining was the discovery that Len’s growth plates showed he could add another inch to his 7-foot-1 frame.

An August return to the court is likely, as is Len being ready for training camp. Pressed if Len’s foot injury, one scary for a big man, is a worrisome problem, McDonough could only say the Suns’ training staff saw no issues in the future.

So that then leads to what Len is right now.

Immediately, Len said he expects to be able to play solid defense.

“He’s not going to have to bang guys right off the bat,” Hornacek said. “Defensively with his length, probably is going to be quicker because of his length and his size. If I had to say (whether he’ll be better on offense or defense to begin), probably defense. We think with the skills, offense is not going to be far behind.”

What’s expected down the road?

Part of the Suns’ confidence in their pick – and picks – is their background research. McDonough appears to put a large weight on simply talking to players and those familiar with them. If they have the skill, Phoenix believes they’ll be able to break glass ceilings with their smarts and work ethic.

Such is how McDonough’s pick of Rajon Rondo with the Boston Celtics panned out so well, after all.

“I just think he’s a smart player, he’s a smart kid,” McDonough said of Len. “He’ll pick things up quickly, he’ll understand defensive rotations and what the opponents are trying to do.”

It all comes back to Len’s raw skill, which hasn’t been realized yet, of course. The Suns liked Len’s instincts as a shotblocker. They liked his footwork that likely came from his gymnastics days – it allows him to make moves that many other bigs can’t.

“We saw several highlights where he catches it on one side, and he can spin on a guy and get to the other side of the basket,” Hornacek said. “Big guys are usually not that mobile.”

McDonough wouldn’t speak about why Phoenix looked at Len before Nerlens Noel and Ben McLemore. He only emphasized the Suns did what he said they would – take the first available player on their board.

“Is he as good a shot blocker as Noel? Maybe not,” Hornacek added. “But he’s still long, can block shots and has the offensive game. I’ll keep going back to it. You got a guy who is 7’1, can do things defensively, can block shots, can take up space with the wingspan – and he’s got a good offensive game. You can use him to pass, you can use him to score. It’s something you don’t see very often at both sides of the game. He’s not just one-dimensional.”

How does he fit with the run-and-gun Suns?

Choosing a big man might be misinterpreted as playing at a slower pace. The Suns likely took a lot of flak from that angle, but Hornacek rebutted with simple basketball points. Running teams can’t run if they don’t play defense, rebound and create turnovers.

Len sees himself fitting in well with the team.

“I know Phoenix Suns like to play high tempo, run up and down,” Len said. “I think it fits the game well. I think my agility came from a long time ago when I did gymnastics when I was young. It helped with my coordination. I think the high-tempo game fits my game well, too.”

Len said the shrunk spacing of the college game hurt his ability to operate in the post, and Hornacek repeatedly promised the Suns will get Len more involved in the offense. He said Len can get quick post position by beating big men down the floor. The pick-and-roll-ability of Len, who has a decent midrange jumper, will help in pop situations.

It’s unclear if the Suns would go with a Twin Towers look with Marcin Gortat if they retain him. Oddly enough, Gortat participated in an ESPN Insider player-only mock and chose Len for the Suns.

The be-careful-what-you-wish-for chants are already headed Gortat’s way.

If McDonough’s trust in Len is based on prophetic knowledge, those will only become more frequent.

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Tags: 2013 NBA Draft

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