Alex Len To Play A Vital Role in Hawks Offensive Scheme

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Author: Kevin L. Chouinard (@KLChouinard)

ATLANTA -- Anyone who watched Alex Len play two games for the Ukrainian men's national team this summer quickly learned what he does best on a basketball court.

Time after time, the 25-year-old center got Ukraine's offense rolling downhill by setting picks for his ballhandling teammates and making beelines for the rim. In his first-ever appearance for the mens' national team, Len and his rim-rolling helped Ukraine to their first-ever win over Spain.

Len said those things are what head coach Lloyd Pierce expects him to reproduce for the offense of the Hawks.

"When we met, he invited me to talk to him one-on-one, and he basically laid down what he expects of me," Len said. "He was like, 'Keep setting great screens and rolling hard to the basket and rebounding and defending pick and rolls.' "

Pierce then added a wrinkle to the usual expectations. 

"If you keep putting in the work on shooting threes," he said, "I'll let you shoot them."

The Hawks are not new to the business of having a big man develop and add the three-point ball to his toolkit. Last season, center Dewayne Dedmon made 50 of 141 threes (35.1 percent) after only attempting one three-pointer his first four NBA seasons. At the same time, then-rookie John Collins converted 16 of 47 three-point attempts (34.0 percent) after only trying one three in two seasons at Wake Forest. 

Like Dedmon and Collins before him, Len doesn't have a long history with the three-point shot. In his five previous NBA seasons, all with the Phoenix Suns, Len attempted a total of 25 threes and made just 6 of them. On the other hand, Len's history with the three-point shot traces back beyond his NBA days. He said that he used to shoot them in high school and very early in his college career. 

"Then they wanted me to be more back-to-the-basket," Len said. "In college I was the biggest guy and usually the strongest guy, so they wanted me to use my strength playing inside. But looking back, I should have keep shooting. I should have kept that in my game."

He has made 5 of his 9 attempts from long range in the preseason, and in the one post-practice shooting drill where I counted, he made 17 of his 20 corner threes. 

Like any team, the Hawks work a bunch on their three-point shooting. 

At the end of each practice, some of the big men (usually Len, Miles Plumlee, Alex Poythress and Thomas Robinson) gather on one basket close to work on individual skills. Those skills usually include some threes, oftentimes from the corners. It's an inevitability in a league where the number of threes attempted league-wide has jumped from 59,241 to to 66,422 to 71,340 over the past three seasons. 

Miles Plumlee, too, has tried his hand at shooting threes. 

"I've improved a lot this summer," he said. "Especially in our offense, everyone has to be able to do a little bit of everything. Down the road, I think I will. Until I show them that I'm hitting a certain percentage in our drills, it's just a numbers game. When you get there and improve enough, they'll give you the opportunity."

So far this season, the Hawks have attempted 37.3 threes per game, a number that ranks fourth among the NBA's 30 teams. While he noted the importance of the shots, Pierce was careful to emphasize that the Hawks don't just want three-point shots. 

"The way the game is played, to be relevant, you have to at least be a threat, and you have to be capable – specifically from the corner. We've told our guys, 'If it's ten seconds or less, and your defender is in the paint, then you've got to shoot it or else it's hard for us to get any other action after that.'  But we don't want to settle. We want good-to-great shots."

Or, to put it another way using a phrase that Pierce said assistant coach Melvin Hunt helped coin: "Like the three, love the rim."

With that said, the Hawks are typically going to have at most one player diving to the rim. If the Hawks pair two big men from Dedmon, Collins, Len, Plumlee, rookie Omari Spellman and Vince Carter (who ranks 6th all-time with 2106 career threes), one will be asked to space the floor while the other rolls. 

Expect Alex Len to be ready for that role.