Suns Rookie Ready To "Len" A Hand
It’s not often that an NBA team sets its sights on a young prospect who is participating in gymnastics rather than basketball. When that gymnast grows into a seven-footer capable of leading the ACC in blocked shots, however, it’s understandable why said prospect would quickly find himself projected to go as high as No. 1 according to some NBA mock drafts. But luckily for the Suns, Alex Len was still on the board at No. 5, and the organization wasted no time swooping up the Ukrainian big man who had previously spent the last two years with Maryland.
“When Anthony Bennett went first, I think everybody in the room was excited to think that the guy we had rated the highest on our board may end up (reaching us), and that’s exactly what happened with Alex,” Suns Head Coach Jeff Hornacek said. “So when the fourth pick came, and we saw it wasn’t Alex, it was a no-brainer for us.”
After nearly doubling his scoring average from his freshman to his sophomore year at Maryland, Len’s stock skyrocketed. Among the highlights of that second season for Len was his 23-point, 12-rebound and four-block performance against another projected No. 1 pick, Nerlens Noel, as well as a 15-point, 13-rebound and five-block effort during an NIT quarterfinal win vs. Alabama. Having just turned 20-years-old less than two weeks prior to the draft, it’s easy to see why so many teams were interested in the youngster.
“I thought Alex would be gone and was really excited he was still there when we were picking,” Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough said. “He’s extremely skilled, has had good success at the college level, but we believe he’s just scratching the surface of his potential as a player.”
Len meanwhile is equally as excited to be joining Hornacek and McDonough in the Valley.
“I’m really excited that Phoenix selected me,” Len said via a conference call on Thursday. “I can’t wait to go to the city to meet my new teammates, my new coaches and be a part of the Phoenix family.”
For a team that ended the 2012-13 campaign by allowing a season-high 80 points in the paint to the Denver Nuggets, Len brings some additional size in the middle that could make things more difficult for opponents moving forward. As Hornacek acknowledged on Thursday, it isn’t only Len’s ability to alter and block shots that the head coach says will help the Suns, but what those opportunities will lead to on the other end of the floor.
“Obviously when you want to be a fast-breaking team, the best way to get out on the break is to play good defense and take off with it,” Hornacek said. “Big guys are not usually that mobile, and he’s a very mobile guy. And especially in our system where you want to get out running, he can fill the lane. Several times you saw him go down the middle of the lane, get a pass just inside that free throw line, take one long stride and he’s dunking it. I think being a gymnast is going to bode well for footwork and everything else.”
Helping to deliver a number of those passes to Len will be Suns guard Goran Dragic, who Len listed among the players he is most excited about the prospect of playing with.
“He’s a great player who has great vision on the floor,” Len said of the Slovenian playmaker. “He likes to play at a high tempo so it fits my game well.”
The Suns didn’t head into the 2013 NBA Draft with one need to fill. But by drafting Len, the front office is confident that they not only filled a number of holes, but added a player from whom they see plenty of potential.
“When you can get a guy that’s 7’1 and can do things defensively like block shots and take up space with that wingspan, but also has a good offensive game, it’s something you don’t see very often,” Hornacek said. “He has both sides of the game and that’s what helps make us feel really excited about the guy. He’s not one dimensional.”
Many fans may remember that when Len came in to meet with the Suns in early June, the big man was accompanied by a pair of crutches. In April, Len was diagnosed with a partial stress fracture in his left ankle and opted to undergo surgery. While the injury will cause the big man to miss this year’s NBA Summer League, both Len and the front office appear confident that he will be on the court come October.
“From what we’ve been told, he’s going to be fine by Training Camp,” Hornacek said. “The injury would have eventually healed on its own, but the surgery maybe sped up the process and I think there are no issues with that.”
Ryan McDonough agreed that the injury is not a major concern to the organization, thanks in large part to the work of their renowned training staff.
“Obviously we’ll fly him out in the next couple of days and have our people take a closer look at it, but we’ve obviously put a lot of time into it,” the general manager said. “We checked him out in Chicago at the combine and followed up again when he came in here. We think that timeline is probably accurate but won’t know for sure until our medical people decide.”
BIG MEN ON CAMPUS
One of the factors that Jeff Hornacek said he believes could benefit Len is sharing the practice court with center Marcin Gortat.
“We kind of feel with Marcin there to lead the way, and for those guys to have to push each other in practice, it’s going to help (Alex) get better and better,” the head coach said.
Hornacek even hinted at the possibility of having both Len and Suns center Marcin Gortat on the floor at the same time next season during games should the opportunity present itself.
“Who knows how the season starts, but we feel we have a pretty good one-two combination with him and Marcin in there to grow and develop,” Hornacek said. “I don’t know if we go the ‘twin towers’ route, but if Alex gets in there right away and we feel he should be playing right off the bat, maybe we try that and it’s a weapon we can use every once in a while.”