NBA Dream Becoming Reality for Suns Rookie Alex Len
Alex Len couldn't wait to tell family and friends the news on Sunday night. He got on the phone as fast as post-game events allowed following the Suns' 106-99 preseason win at San Antonio.
He wasn't calling to brag about his six points, nine rebounds and two blocks in 25 minutes of play. He was calling about who those minutes were against: Tim Duncan.
"He said that his favorite players were Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan," Suns Head Coach Jeff Hornacek said. "We wanted to get him out there to go against him."
The rookie big man's appreciation for Duncan and Garnett dates back to his youth, when he would alternate between waking up at 3:00 a.m. to watch them live or catch replays of their games being aired the following day.
In giving the All-Star big men his attention, they unknowingly gave him the dream of playing All-Star caliber basketball in return.
"Tim Duncan plays so effortlessly," Len said. "Everything he does looks so easy. He makes it look so easy. I liked watching him. He's a really intelligent player and I think I can learn something from him."
Len was growing fast, physically, but his skill set needed refinement even more consistent than his increasing height. With basketball being a relatively late endeavor (he started playing when he was 13), immense amounts of basics and big man fundamentals had to be crammed into a short amount of time.
The work load on the practice court was intense, but Len took heart from the example of his grandfather, whom would observe him leaving at 5:00 a.m. to work in the coal mines each morning to work at least a 12-hour shift. He would return home, only to immediately tackle an outdoors home project, exhibiting a manic activity level that had Len's grandmother jokingly tell him to "go chill in the house."
It was that standard of work ethic, Len said, that stuck with him as he progressed in his own career path.
"My grandfather worked at the coal mines for 40 years," he said. "He started from the bottom. He was just a regular worker. He worked his way up to be almost the owner, but not the owner, like a director. He ran the whole mine. I always looked up to him...He was like an inspiration to me, growing up."
Hornacek and the Suns noticed Len's habit for hard work soon after he was cleared for basketball activity last month after undergoing two ankle surgeries. The No. 5 overall pick wasted no time participating in as many reps, drills and scrimmages as possible while regaining his conditioning.
"I think he’s doing a great job of playing hard," Hornacek said during training camp. "He’s trying to listen to what we’re doing. He’s asking the coaches questions. We forget sometimes how young he is and things that he has to learn."
Sunday's game against the Spurs was one of the early rewards from a coaching staff that appreciates progress and passion. Briefly matched up against one of the No. 21's who inspired his own jersey number, Len was at first simply excited. That emotion promptly gave way to the basketball instincts honed from countless hours on the court.
Many of Len's skills are similar to those of the players he grew up watching. Like Duncan and Garnett, Len boasts a surprisingly soft touch from midrange, which he used along with his height to hit a jumper over his childhood idol. Another similarity is his activity in the paint, where the rookie snared three offensive rebounds on Sunday.
Realizing he wouldn't be overwhelmed by his highly esteemed competition was one of Len's biggest rewards thus far.
"I definitely learned I can compete at this level," he said. "It gave me confidence. You're going against your idol, and you play well. I scored on [Duncan], so it gave me confidence."
Now, it is Len's grandfather who is waking up at 3:00 a.m. to watch a specific NBA player, though the reason is deeper than his grandson's was for watching Duncan and Garnett. He is planning on flying to Phoenix to watch Len's regular season debut in person on Oct. 30 against Portland.
"He was just excited for me that my dreams came true," Len said. "He's just happy for me about where I am."
Odds are the rookie's own happiness is right up there as well.