The Case for Keeping Alex Len

Mar 17, 2017; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns center Alex Len (21) runs up the court in the first half of the NBA game against the Orlando Magic at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 17, 2017; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns center Alex Len (21) runs up the court in the first half of the NBA game against the Orlando Magic at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports /

Alex Len was originally selected with the fifth overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, a draft that featured one of the strangest first picks ever in now journeyman Anthony Bennett. Len just finished up his fourth season with the Phoenix Suns, and goes into the offseason eligible for a new contract.

The Suns will most likely offer Len the qualifying offer, giving them the right to match any offer another team could make. However, it’s popular belief that Len won’t be kept around unless he agrees to a relatively cheap deal. With the way that centers got paid in last year’s free agency, however, that doesn’t seem very likely. Even so, Len is still not 24-years-old until June 16th. The ankle problems that he came with coming into the league have mostly become a non-issue as Len has bulked up and worked on his body.

Many fans seem to be ready to move on from Len already, just four years into his career. I have a different line of thinking on this. The Suns should absolutely re-sign Len no matter what the cost, even if someone is crazy enough to give him a max offer. But even at $15 million a year, I think the Suns should keep Alex Len and continue to develop him.

Out of the five positions in basketball, centers seem to develop the latest into their careers. There are of course exceptions, and those exceptions tend to be some of the greatest players in the league. However, many of today’s starting and even star NBA centers were late bloomers. I personally believe that Alex Len will also be a late bloomer, as he continues to mature and let the game come more naturally to him, instead of over-thinking everything he does. This is an example of what he’s capable of if he plays within himself and within the game:

There are multiple examples of big men who didn’t enter their prime until they were in their mid-to-late twenties. Marc Gasol became a starter for Memphis as a 24-year-old rookie, but he didn’t become a top big man until the year he turned 30. He was a great defender up until then, but the 2014-15 season was when his offense took a leap and he became a centerpiece for the Grizzlies.

Hassan Whiteside couldn’t even crack the Sacramento Kings’ roster his first two years in the league, only playing 19 games during that time. After two years out of the NBA, he came back and took the league by storm with the Miami Heat, when he was 25-years-old. It took him four years to become a productive center, and six years to become a star.

Al Horford was a starter from day one for the Atlanta Hawks. Even so, he didn’t fully reach his peak as a star big man until he was 26-years-old, his sixth year in the league. Robin Lopez is by no means a star. He has developed into a very solid starting big man. Even for him, it wasn’t until he was 25 that he started playing like a starter.

DeAndre Jordan didn’t become the feared rim protector and dunker that we know him to be until his sixth year in the league, when he was 25 years old. He’s now arguably the best defensive center in the league, and while he certainly had his athleticism from the get-go, he wasn’t able to put it all together until his mid-twenties.

I could go on and on with different examples, but you get the point. If a big man doesn’t flash early, it’s not the end of the world. Many very good centers didn’t become star big men until they were on their second contract at least. Alex Len has all the potential in the world, and for the Suns to give up on him already would be poor judgment on their part.

If the Suns want to get rid of the logjam at center, they need to unload Tyson Chandler. He is the oldest player on the roster, and he’s owed more than $12 million a year for two more years. While it’s certainly good to have a few veterans on the team, Chandler has mostly stunted Alex Len’s growth, and I would much rather pay $12 to 15 million a year for a 24-year-old with lots of upside than a center who will turn 35 in October who’s getting about the same amount of money and giving similar production.

Alex Len has good size at 7’1″ and 260 lbs. Not many men can move him out of the way on either side of the court. He has good defensive instincts and is a great defensive rebounder. His shooting touch improves every year, and I feel with one to two more years of grooming he will be an above-average offensive player around the rim. Once he learns to keep the ball high, use the backboard more, and develops either a hook shot or a turn-around jumper, he could easily be a 15 points, 11 rebounds, and 2 assists per game player.

There was talk that he was working on his three-point shot last offseason. While becoming versatile like that is certainly a nice idea, it’s not what the Suns need Len to do, and it’s not what Len needs to do this early in his career. The Suns have Chriss and Bender to stretch the floor for them at the four. They need Len to be the rim protector and bruiser inside. Alex has so much upside and skills that need a little more development. He’s been fighting Tyson Chandler for playing time since almost day one, that mixed with inconsistent coaching and goals, have all kept Len from really shining and developing more as a player. I think with consistency in his expectations, not only for himself but also the coaching staff’s for him, will be a huge help.

The Suns also need to commit to Len as their starter and stop switching back and forth between him and Chandler. Len should be the clear-cut starter for this team, with Alan Williams to come off the bench and provide energy and hustle for 18 to 20 minutes a night. Some say Williams should be the center we re-sign this offseason, not Len. I think we should pay for both. For one, the draft class is weak in big men this year, so the Suns probably won’t get anyone they can develop into a good player down the road anyways. Plus, as great as Williams’ hustle and grit is, the fact of the matter is that he’s under-sized and only an average athlete. He can’t protect the rim very well, and the Suns will be in big trouble if they ask him to cover the likes of Karl-Anthony Towns, DeMarcus Cousins, and Marc Gasol.

More from Valley of the Suns

The Suns believed in Alex Len four years ago when they took him fifth overall to become the center of the future for them. I hope that they continue that belief in him now and give him several more years to continue to develop and find himself as a player in this league. Len has loads of potential, and he still hasn’t even sniffed the prime of his career yet. For the Suns to move on from him in favor of a 34-year-old on the decline would be a very bad move on their part. Not only does he fit with the timeline of this team, he has upside that few big men in the league have, and the Suns have the final say on his destiny and his destination. They shouldn’t squander that opportunity.