Draft Preview: Alex Len

Maryland 7-footer’s availability would pose a dilemma for Pistons

Alex Len
Maryland center Alex Len
Jason Szenes (NBAE/Getty)
(Editor’s note: Eighth in a recurring series leading to the June 27 draft. Coming Friday: Cody Zeller.)

While there isn’t much definitive about the 2013 NBA draft, a loose consensus top six has emerged that consists of Nerlens Noel, Ben McLemore, Otto Porter, Victor Oladipo, Trey Burke and Anthony Bennett.

And that might present a dilemma for the Pistons, picking at No. 8. No outsider can say for certain, of course, how their draft board will stack up after they complete the individual workouts for candidates they’ll consider with that pick. Those workouts almost always take place in the final 10 days or so before the draft, giving the Pistons the latest possible feel for how the draft might shake out and the most recent impression of the players under consideration.

But what happens if those top six are all off the board and the clear best value, in their estimation, for the No. 8 pick is Maryland sophomore 7-footer Alex Len? Andre Drummond might be many things, but right now it’s clear that all of those things involve him playing close to the rim on both defense and offense – to protect it at one end and punish it with emphatic lob-dunk or put-back finishes at the other.

Len is a pure center, as well, in the view of nearly every draft evaluator. The most common comparison made is to Toronto’s Jonas Valanciunas, the No. 4 pick in the 2011 draft. Len came to Maryland from Ukraine, also home to Pistons backup center Slava Kravtsov, not far from Valanciunas’ Lithuania. He didn’t put up eye-popping numbers for the Terrapins – 11.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game – but shows flashes of dominance that make many believe he could grow into a top-tier NBA center.

In fact, given Cleveland’s penchant for draft-night intrigue, there is a school of thought that Len could even be a surprise No. 1 pick over Nerlens Noel should the Cavs hold on to the pick. Like Noel, likely out until the mid-point of his rookie season while recovering from a February ACL tear, Len won’t be able to work out for teams due to injury. After playing on what he assumed were bone spurs in his ankle last season, Len had an MRI in April that confirmed a stress fracture. He said at the Chicago draft combine last month that doctors told him he would be cleared to go by the end of June.

Would the Pistons draft a center with Drummond already on the roster? They’d have to be convinced of a significant dropoff between Len and any other player available, but it’s not inconceivable that would be the case should Len fall to No. 8. He came into the week No. 7 on DraftExpress.com and No. 9 on ESPN.com’s top 100 lists.

If Cleveland is looking for a tiebreaker as it evaluates Noel and Len, a strong argument in Len’s favor would be made by the videotape of their Nov. 9 meeting in the 2012-13 season opener. Kentucky won 72-69, but Len had perhaps the best game of his two-year college career with 23 points on 10 of 18 shooting to go with 12 rebounds and four blocked shots. Noel had four points on 2 of 6 shooting to go with nine boards and three blocks in his college debut.

“I think I did pretty well in that game,” Len said in Chicago, where the walking boot he was in prevented him from being accurately measured for height, though he did register an impressive 7-foot-3½ wing span with 6.4 percent body fat. “It was good for me to kind of show NBA scouts what I can be in the future. I kind of showed my potential.”

Len, who said he knows of Kravtsov but had never met him, didn’t consistently realize his potential at Maryland, spawning a variety of theories as to why. Woeful guard play at Maryland – similar to the questions NBA scouts had a year earlier when trying to rationalize Drummond’s middling impact at Connecticut – is often cited. To be sure, Len needs to build up his body and gain strength to far greater degrees than Drummond did while also needing to develop something resembling a go-to move with his back to the basket.

Len suggested a simple explanation for his lack of dazzling numbers.

“Coach (Mark) Turgeon, he’s a defensive-minded coach,” he said. “So he just asked us to guard and help the team on defense and he didn’t really care how I played on offense. I was fine with it. I just did my role. I think I have good size and I’m pretty agile for my size. I can step out and shoot a little bit, so I think that’s what makes me different from other players.”

Much like Valanciunas, though, Len seems to have the tools to evolve into a multifaceted offensive threat. He runs the floor very well and can use both hands around the rim, also Valanciunas traits, and might be even longer while still only 19. That age also could help teams explain away Len’s so-so college resume.

“I guess, yeah, we’re kind of similar players. We’re both from overseas and we’re similar,” said Len, who says he tries to pattern himself after players with strong fundamentals, citing Tim Duncan and Roy Hibbert.

Teams would probably be more eager to put Len in an individual workout setting than players for whom they have a greater grasp as they try to satisfy their doubts as to why a potential NBA difference-maker couldn’t take Maryland to the NCAA tournament. But the stress fracture eliminates that possibility. The last impression scouts have of Len is a strong one, at least, as he averaged 15.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 5.5 blocks while making 12 of 19 shots in Maryland’s last two NIT games – all while playing over a painful ankle injury, which troubled him for the season’s final two months, he said.

“I got the feedback from the doctors right after I announced I’m going to the NBA,” Len said. “It was bad timing for the injury. It’s tough. I can’t do anything – only talk to teams and stuff – but I’m still glad to be here and it’s exciting.”

Len’s size, age and glimpses of greatness are going to be tantalizing to every one of the teams picking ahead of the Pistons. Many of those teams could use an upgrade in the middle, are in complete rebuilding modes or both. Athletic 7-foot teens don’t usually get passed over by many teams with a need at center.

Yet there is enough uncertainty with Len – toughness, consistency plus the usual assortment of questions in evaluating young big men, especially international players – that any and all of them could decide to go a safer route.

It’s not unthinkable that the Pistons could be faced with the same decision to make about Len as they made about Drummond a year earlier – with the further complicating factor of Drummond’s presence and the issue of whether Len and Drummond could co-exist on top of that.