The Future for Phoenix Suns: Ukrainian Blockade Alex Len

Dec 23, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (right) against Phoenix Suns center Alex Len at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Suns defeated the 76ers 123-116. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 23, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (right) against Phoenix Suns center Alex Len at Talking Stick Resort Arena. The Suns defeated the 76ers 123-116. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

In 2013 the Phoenix Suns drafted Alex Len, the 7’1” Ukrainian big man from the University of Maryland, to fill the much-needed center position the Suns lacked. He was touted as a both ends of the floor player with major rim protecting potential.

Len’s defensive potential was showcased while at Maryland. With his 7’3.5” wingspan, Len’s presence in the paint was significant – averaging 2.1 blocks per game. Four years later and Len has become one of the better defensive players on the team. However, the question remains if the Suns will resign the big when he enters restricted free agency.

This season the Suns have had major issues on the defensive end but Len’s performance has not been one of them. Currently Len leads the team in a multitude of defensive categories: Defensive Rating (DEF RTG), Defensive Box Plus/Minus (DBPM), Blocks Per Game, and he is second in Defensive Win Shares. Even citing these statistics, he remains with the second unit while Tyson Chandler remains the starter.

When comparing Len to the rest of the league his defensive abilities stand out among the best centers. His defensive prowess is criminally underrated when defending less than 6ft in front of the rim. In fact, he is the 4th best center in this category in the league. Only Rudy Gobert, Hassan Whiteside, and Tristan Thompson are better. For perspective, Tyson Chandler is 3rd worst among qualifying centers.

Furthermore, in the 5-9ft range he surpasses the likes of some defensive household names. He allows a respectable 41.5% within this range. This is better than DeAndre Jordan, DeMarcus Cousins, Hassan Whiteside, and former Defensive Player of the Year, Marc Gasol. As a 23-year old he holds his own on the defensive end. A caveat, these stats reflect centers that have played at least 35 games this season and average at least 15 minutes.

Unfortunately, the rest of Len’s game need significant development. He is not much of an offensive weapon, only averaging 7.5 points per game with 56% of his scoring coming within 3 feet of the basket or less. His post-game is nearly non-existent. Only 0.8 of his field goals per game are from the post. This could be a result of coach Earl Watson not running plays for Len or it could be that Len’s skill set is not complimentary for the post – most likely a combination of both.

Foul trouble has been a problem, but to be fair, the entire team has fouling issues as the Suns are league’s most prolific foulers in the league. Len averages 3 fouls per game and 5.3 fouls per 36 minutes. Also, his assist/turnover ratio is one of the worst in the league. Among qualifying centers in the same respect as the defensive ranks, Len ranks 79th out of 80 centers with a 0.43 a/t ratio. Tyson Chandler is surprisingly dead last in this category at 0.41.

It is safe to say the Suns need to significantly improve the efficiency of their big men. Because of Len’s deficiencies Watson only plays him 20.2 minutes per game and over the past eight games Len has been reduced to 13.6 minutes per game.

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The future for Len becomes a bit murky as the off-season approaches. With Watson preferring to give significant playing time to 35-year old Tyson Chandler resulting in Len’s role slowly reducing, the question remains if the Suns wish to move on from the defensive specialist.

According to, a website that tracks professional sports salaries, the average NBA spent 17.5 million on centers this season. Approximately this is on average 18% of the cap. The Phoenix Suns are currently spending 21.3% of their salaries on Chandler and Len combined already. With Len reaching restricted free agency, will the Suns be willing to spend what could be north of 30% of their cap space on two centers in which neither are currently seen as the answer going forward?

The off-season is an unpredictable beast though. Most recently with last off-season’s spending frenzy to average to below average centers. With centers like Timofey Mozgov and Bismack Biyombo making north of $16 million a year, anything is possible.

It is important to note the Suns currently have $13 million in cap space and the salary cap is projected to rise again and exceed the $100 million range.

The second half of the season will be a time for Len to showcase his defensive abilities and to prove he has potential in other aspects of his game. Expect to see Len play a bigger role after the All-Star break. He may yet become the center of the future for the Suns.