PHOENIX — It’s not the operative word a collective fan base wants to hear when talking about a No. 5 overall pick, but it’s a fitting one for Phoenix Suns rookie center Alex Len, who has more surgeries under his belt than NBA regular season games.
The word is patience and it’s being uttered around every nook and cranny inside US Airways Center these days in reference to the 7-foot-1 Ukrainian.
Even before Len went under the knife back in July for the second time in a span of three months, the former Maryland standout was considered a rare project lottery pick.
At 257 pounds, Len has a very solid build, terrific length, rare athleticism for his size and an ability to finish at the rim. What he’s not, though, is a polished center, the type of guy who can bang down low on the post for 30 to 40 minutes a night at both ends. His instincts on the glass are not bad, but he’s not yet a terror on the glass, either.
Still, Suns general manager Ryan McDonough made one thing clear on draft night.
“When Alex was there [at No. 5], the decision was clear,” McDonough said. “It was very unpredictable. I think everybody, starting at No. 1 with Cleveland, nobody was really sure what they were doing even when they were on the clock. It didn’t give us a whole lot of time to prepare.
“Frankly, I thought Alex would be gone in the first four picks, because we did have him ranked higher than where he was picked at five.”
There were those — be it fans or pundits — who thought the smarter pick would have been either Nerlens Noel out of Kentucky or Ben McLemore out of Kansas. It’s a thought that was magnified throughout the summer, as Len’s lone appearance in a Suns uniform came in a fashion show rather than in the Las Vegas Summer League.
But the boot and the surgeries are a thing of the past, at least as far as the organization is concerned. Now, the focus is on grooming Len to start the season as Marcin Gortat’s backup.
“We’re being patient with him as we bring him back,” said McDonough. “He said the ankles haven’t felt any pain. If he feels any soreness, we might hold him out time to time.”
So far, so good for the rookie.
Len, who admitted at Suns Media Day that his primarily goals during training camp and the preseason were ‘to get healthy and to get back in shape,’ has shown some positive signs through his first three games in the Association.
Less than a month after he was ‘cleared for contact,’ Len has participated in all three of Phoenix’s exhibition games, averaging 4.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.0 blocks per game in 18.3 minutes of work. In Sunday’s seven-point win against the San Antonio Spurs, he played a season-high 25 minutes and led the team with nine boards.
It’s all part of the process for the 2013 first-round pick. It’s a process that best-case scenario means he’s taking over the starting job come February or worst-case scenario taking over the spot come 2014-15.
The ironic thing, too, is that arguably the biggest supporter Len will have this season is the man he’s expected to ultimately replace, Gortat.
During ESPN the Magazine’s NBA Player Mock Draft, the Polish Hammer got to play the role of Suns GM and he too thought the third-team All-ACC center was a perfect fit in the Valley.
“Hell yeah, I did,” Gortat said when asked if picked Len. “Because as a smart GM, that’s what you do. You always pick the best center in the draft. You’ll be dumbest GM not to pick a big guy like that. He’s a legit 7-foot-1 center, who can move, who can run, who can shoot the ball — he’s got a great touch around the rim.
“Quite honestly, he’s got a super bright future in this league so that is the best pick. Even if you have a decent center on a team, I would still go for him. At the end of the day, you can always get something good for a center (in a trade).”
The last line was likely as much tongue-and-cheek from Gortat as it was anything else, however it could also prove to be rather prophetic. If the Suns do end up trading the six-year veteran before the trade deadline, it’ll be because McDonough and Co. didn’t just find ‘something good for a center in a trade.’ No, it’ll mean the future (Len) is ready to become the present.
Until then, though, it’s about patience.