Len, Goodwin Eager to Start Second-Year Leap

Barry Gossage/NBAE
by Matt Petersen

If anyone understands the second-year leap, it’s Miles Plumlee.

Phoenix’s starting center had, by all accounts, an underwhelming rookie season in 2012-13. He played a total of 55 minutes, hardly enough time to make a lasting impact among NBA circles.

Then the summer league happened. Plumlee had fared well in his first go-around after getting drafted in 2012, but the 2013 summer league in Orlando showed what had been subdued on the Pacers’ bench. He averaged 10.0 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and 1.5 steals over a four-game stretch that caught the eye of Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough.

Phoenix swung a trade for him just a month later, and Plumlee blossomed as the Suns’ main rim protector and rebounder in his second year.

McDonough doesn’t deem Plumlee’s rise to relevance as an anomaly. Indeed, he labels the transition from Year 1 to Year 2 as “the biggest summer of a player’s career.”

Alex Len at Summer League Practice

The Suns are hoping for a Plumlee-like rise from 2013 first-round picks Archie Goodwin and Alex Len. Both are coming off rookie seasons that boasted more learning than playing, though that was due to elements beyond either player’s control. Len was recovering from dual ankle surgeries, a process that wasn’t complete until Phoenix was well into its late-season playoff push. Goodwin was drafted before the Suns acquired Eric Bledsoe, Gerald Green and Ish Smith, all of whom (along with Goran Dragic) experienced career years and gobbled up the majority of backcourt minutes.

That doesn’t mean Goodwin and Len’s first year was a waste. The former spent countless hours on his shooting stroke and used D-League playing time and NBA spot minutes to acclimate his athletic gifts to the flow of the game. He tickled Suns fans’ imaginations with his 29-point regular season finale at Sacramento, and Plumlee says his tangible improvement has continued in offseason scrimmages and pickup games.

“He’s definitely getting better, also more poised, more comfortable,” Plumlee said. “He’s not as reckless as he used to be, I think. [His speed] is a great asset, but the more you can control it I think will be to his advantage.”

That’s a big part of why Phoenix felt it landed a steal when it only had to trade up to 29 in last year’s draft to nab Goodwin. His ability to get to the rim was already elite. Once other skills and a little patience were added in, the Suns figured his value would far exceed where he was picked.

That vision could become reality sooner than later.

“He’s good enough to be a rotational player in this league,” said summer league head coach Mike Longabardi. “He’s very blessed with God-given ability with his quickness and athleticism. That’s why we like him.”

Len, meanwhile, has bulked up considerably. The 7-1 big man now sports a frame that looks physically imposing, a result of five visits a week to the weight room as well as non-stop on-court workouts with assistant coaches Mark West and Kenny Gattison. Len said he has put on 10 pounds of muscle since the regular season ended. Since then, Longabardi said he’s done almost nothing besides do time with “the training staff mafia.”

“I didn’t go anywhere [after the season],” Len said. “I stayed here in Phoenix. After Summer League I’m going to come back and just keep working here.”

Plumlee sees and feels the difference when he has to go head-to-head with him in scrimmages.

“He’s definitely stronger,” Plumlee added. “He’s been in the weight room all year. He’s just a lot more poised in the post. I think he’s kind of learned his game, his advantages. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses, so the quicker you learn those and learn how to play the best you can…I think he’s picking it up.”

“[Len's] definitely stronger. He’s been in the weight room all year. He’s just a lot more poised in the post. I think he’s kind of learned his game, his advantages. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses, so the quicker you learn those and learn how to play the best you can…I think he’s picking it up.”

— Miles Plumlee

The next week in Vegas will serve as a stage for Len and Goodwin to prove their progress. They will be featured prominently in Longabardi’s lineups, giving them the NBA quality minutes that, ultimately, are necessary for meaningful development .

“There’s no substitute for playing,” Longabardi said.

Plumlee knows this, and knows how a quality summer league can lead to a career-changing season.

“I think it’s just a great launching pad for what you’ve been working on in the summer,” he said. “They both have a year under their belt. Regardless of how much they played, they watched a lot and they got to practice against us.”

Len is particularly eager to trade practice gear for game jerseys after being forced to sit out last year’s summer league. Confidence has returned with his health, and the two factors could combine to make him the don’t-forget-about-me guy at Vegas.

“I’m pulling for him,” Longabardi said. “I’m one of his biggest fans. I want him to do really, really well… He’s feeling more comfortable, which is important. He’s playing a lot more free and easy, which is good. Hopefully that will continue.”

If it does, Phoenix could find itself with a devastatingly versatile big man to pair with anyone in the frontcourt. Len’s teammates were adamant that he sported one of the best mid-range shots of any big man they’d played with, extending his range out to roughly 18-20 feet.

If he and Goodwin show lasting improvement, Phoenix may find two of its better offseason acquisitions come from within.

“We’re second-year players, so there’s going to be more pressure on us,” Len said. “I’m excited for this challenge and I’m excited for the opportunity.”