The Two Major Roadblocks To Alex Len’s Development

Jan 4, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns center Alex Len (21) against the Toronto Raptors at US Airways Center. The Suns defeated the Raptors 125-109. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 4, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns center Alex Len (21) against the Toronto Raptors at US Airways Center. The Suns defeated the Raptors 125-109. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

I’ll admit it: when the Phoenix Suns took Alex Len with the fifth overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, I was disappointed. Everyone knew it was a relatively weak draft class, but with Nerlens Noel and Ben McLemore still on the board at the time, selecting the athletically awkward Len felt like a letdown at the time.

There were reasons for optimism, of course. Len represented the seven-footer the Suns needed on both ends of the floor and though he’d spend training camp rehabbing from ankle surgeries, he had shown flashes of brilliance at Maryland.

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The jury’s still out on which of the three — Len, Noel and McLemore — will have the best career when all is said and done. But in his first season where he’s actually played significant minutes as a starter for 38 games, Len has revealed his potential as a franchise center.

Unfortunately, there have been two major roadblocks preventing the 21-year-old Ukrainian from having the full-on breakout season that Suns fans know is in the works.

To be fair, even if he hasn’t thrown his name in the ring for Most Improved Player of the Year, the 2014-15 season has still been a coming-out party for Len. Think back to the start of the season, when Len was actually coming off the bench. Remember when he played behind Miles Plumlee until head coach Jeff Hornacek could no longer rationalize starting Sky Miles?

Len was playing more minutes than Plumlee off the bench by the time Hornacek finally pulled the trigger on the lineup change. Len was grounding the defense with shot-blocking ability, he was working hard on the glass for a team in desperate need of some rebounding and once he was inserted into the starting lineup, the Suns not-so-coincidentally started winning games.

Len is averaging 7.0 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 24.1 minutes per game as a starter this season, and the Suns have a 21-17 record with him starting at center. In the games he’s come off the bench, Phoenix posted a 12-13 record.

Compared to the rest of the league, Len ranks 13th in blocks, 17th in blocks per game, 20th in defensive rebounding percentage and fourth in block percentage. Per 36 minutes, Len’s numbers give us an indication of how special he might be once he’s ready to start logging bigger minutes:


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Let’s put it this way: Len looked so promising once he found his stride that the Suns felt comfortable moving Plumlee at the trade deadline to completely commit to Lensanity, and all this happened over the course of about three months.

The only problem is there are two major roadblocks to Alex Len’s development.

The first is his penchant for foul trouble. Part of his meager 24.1 minutes per game has to do with his playing time as a reserve early in the year, which skewed his season numbers. Part of it has to do with adjusting to the grind of playing the full schedule (or close to it) for the first time. But the biggest part of it has to do with his inability to stay out of foul trouble.

Len is tied for fifth in the league in personal fouls and commits 3.1 fouls per game. If we’re going to hail Len’s Per 36 Minutes numbers in the other categories, we should point out that Len commits 5.2 fouls per 36 minutes, the second highest mark in the NBA among players who have played at least 1,000 minutes this season (trailing only Kelly Olynyk).

Len’s 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes ranks eighth in the NBA among all players who have played 1,000 minutes, but simply put, all that shot-blocking ability does the Suns no good when he’s on the bench in foul trouble. Perhaps it’s that very shot-blocking ability that gets him into foul trouble, but Len is awfully prone to pump fakes and bad fouls 80 feet away from the basket.

Think about it. How many times have you seen Len miss out on an offensive rebound, swipe at a ball handler trying to get it back and commit a poor foul in the process? It’s one thing if he gets in foul trouble contesting shots at the rim, because the Suns already surrender 46 points in the paint per game (the third worst mark in the NBA).

But picking up dumb fouls for reaching in while trying to make up for a bobbled board or disrupt a fast break does Phoenix no good. Learning this will come with time, and Len’s potential far outweighs some of the dumb fouls 21-year-olds commit at times. But he’s got to get better at avoiding picking up cheap fouls that deprive the Suns of his already stellar shot-blocking.

The second flaw is a bit more obvious, and it’s been on display ever since the Suns first drafted him. Unfortunately, there’s nothing that Len can do about this one, since the poor guy can’t help it that he gets hurt so often.

Last night against the Atlanta Hawks, Len once again received another setback to those fragile ankles of his, colliding with a teammate and spraining his right ankle after landing awkwardly.

The good news is that aside from the swelling and crutches (two obvious red flags), Len’s latest setback doesn’t appear to be too serious. The bad news is, at what point do we start to worry about this poor guy’s fragility?

Len is so much stronger, faster and just flat-out better than the player we saw in his rookie season. But he seems to have the worst luck with injuries, whether it’s the ankles he had surgery on before his first training camp, his left knee that held him out a few games as a rookie or his right pinkie finger that kept him out of the NBA Summer League this past offseason.

Now, it seems, we’re back to the ankle — an injury that sidelined him for three games heading into the All-Star break. That was a different tweak to his ankle, but it was the same right ankle he injured again last night.

Maybe it’s just bad luck. The good news is Len doesn’t fit the bill of the infamous high lottery picks that typically haunt teams: seven-footers with bad feet and bad backs. There’s a good chance this is all just silly conjecture about a rocky start to what might be a long and prosperous career.

But whether it’s bad luck, brittle bones or whatever else you want to call it, Len’s minor injury problems have made him seem as injury-prone as Derrick Rose in his first season and a half in the NBA. Let’s just hope that foul trouble is the biggest obstacle to Len being on the court moving forward.

Next: Phoenix Suns: 5 Things To Expect With Knight Out

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