To give you an idea about how little enthusiasm there was about Alex Len at the start of the season, take a look at this quote from an NBA scout in Sports Illustrated:
I don’t see it with Len at all. He hasn’t played a lot, but I just don’t see it. You could maybe try to play him with Plumlee and try to play more traditional. He doesn’t have the speed or agility to play the way they normally play. He hasn’t done it. Is he going to be injury-prone? Can you count on him every night? Does anyone know what his strength is supposed to be? Who is he going to be? Are you really going to throw it to him on the block? Is he good enough to be a post-up player? Is he going to get off the ball with pick-and-rolls? Can he shoot? There are so many valid questions about who he is going to become. Can he guard the rim? Can he hold the paint? That’s the whole checklist for the five positions. Can he do A through Z? I haven’t seen him do enough to check any of those boxes.
Coming into the season, many NBA people were already to write off Len as a bust, part of one of the worst draft classes of all-time. He was an unknown commodity - he played only two seasons at Maryland, where he put up good but not great numbers on a team that couldn’t make the NCAA Tournament. He was expected to stay in school for one more year, but he couldn’t pass up the chance to be a lottery pick and he was taken at No. 5 overall by the Phoenix Suns.
Injuries put Len even further behind the 8-ball, as he had surgery on his left ankle in the month preceding the draft and surgery on his right ankle in the month after. He missed all of summer league and a good portion of training camp and by the time he got back, the Suns were already clicking without him. He played in only 42 games as a rookie and his numbers were far from encouraging - 2 points and 2 rebounds on 43% shooting, with a PER of 7.3.
With Miles Plumlee coming out of nowhere to grab the starting center spot for Phoenix last season, there didn’t appear to be much room for Len in the Suns future plans, especially given the uptempo style which favored an elite athlete like Plumlee, who can run, jump and dunk for days. Plumlee’s emergence, however, should have made people more leery of writing off Len, not less. After all, what was the oldest Plumlee doing when he was 20, the same age as Len?
He wasn’t in the NBA, playing against the best players in the world. When he was 20, Plumlee was a redshirt freshman at Duke, averaging 2 points and 1.5 rebounds a game. He spent most of his time in college backing up Brian Zoubek, Lance Thomas and his younger brother Mason. He didn’t become a starter until he was a 23-year old senior, when he averaged 7 points and 7 rebounds on a team that was upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Lehigh.
Despite his lack of production as a senior, he was taken at No. 28 overall by the Indiana Pacers, who felt that his combination of size and athletic ability was worth a gamble. Stuck behind Roy Hibbert as a rookie, Plumlee did nothing to justify the Pacers faith in him. That offseason, they included him in a package for Luis Scola, a spare part added in to make salaries match. At that point in his career, there wasn’t much reason to believe in Plumlee as a viable NBA player.
We all know what happened from there. The Suns were one of the surprise teams in the NBA and Plumlee was an integral part of that, the roll man who compressed the defense and caught alley oops above the rim from Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. He was the perfect complement to Channing Frye, whose three-point shooting opened up the floor for the Suns and gave Plumlee free runs to the rim - either you were giving up the Plumlee dunk or the Frye 3.
As a rule, big men take a lot longer to develop than guards. Not only do they have to add a lot of weight to their frame in order to match up with some of the Goliaths in the NBA, they are usually rushed into the league way before they are ready to make an impact, due to the scarcity of athletic 7’0 human beings in the world. Alex Len is the perfect example of that - in a world where he came into college at 19 and stayed four years, he wouldn’t be drafted until 2016.
Instead, because of Len’s rare combination of size, skills and athleticism, he was rushed ahead to the next level as soon as possible. When he came to Maryland as a freshman, he was only 18 years old, a 225-pound bag of bones without much experience with American basketball or culture. He put on almost 20+ pounds of weight in the summer between his freshman and sophomore years, but he was still a fairly skinny guy just beginning to grow into his body.
When Miles Plumlee was 19, he was a redshirt freshman who was practicing with the team and trying to put on enough weight to survive in the ACC. When Len was 19, he was averaging 12 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks and 1 assist a game on 53% shooting. It wasn’t really a big deal that Plumlee was ahead of Len last season - he was five years older. If you look at how Plumlee improved from 21-25, it’s almost scary how good Len could be in 2019, when he turns 25.
Everyone was focusing on all the things that he couldn’t do as opposed to all the things that he could, if he developed at a normal rate. That’s what made me laugh about the quote from the anonymous scout in SI - what did you expect was going to happen when you put a raw 20-year-old up against NBA players? The mere fact that a 20-year old is in the NBA is a pretty good indication that he has talent. Would it kill people to show a little bit of patience?
The tools are there. Len is listed at 7’1 255 and it looks like he could easily carry another 15-20 pounds as he fills out in his mid 20’s. And while he is not Plumlee, he is a really good athlete in his own right, capable of moving his feet on the perimeter and playing above the rim. He is a very large human being with very long arms - 7’3.5 wingspan - who has way more skill and athleticism than most guys his size. Len is about as blue-chip a prospect as you can find.
Even if he was still riding the bench, it would still be way too early to write him off. The good news for Suns fans is that the days of him racking up DNP-CD’s have come and gone - he is not only thriving this season, he is pushing Plumlee for the starting job. Len has per-36 minute averages of 12 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks a game on 57% shooting and he is coming off a dominant showing against the Celtics, with 19 points and 7 rebounds on 8-10 shooting.
He brings a whole different element to the Suns attack. On defense, Len is a far better rim protector than Plumlee, who has never been much of an interior defender. On offense, he has shown flashes of being able to step out and knock down a mid range jumper as well as score out of the post, while still being able to run the floor and play in the two-man game like Plumlee. Len is a more talented player with a more complete skill-set - it’s only a matter of time.
It’s far too soon to know what type of NBA player he can become, but the sky is the limit. A 7’0 who can play at a high level on both ends of the floor is as valuable a player as you are going to find. In the future, people might want to wait before they jump to conclusions about an injured 20-year-old. When dealing with younger players, you must have some degree of patience. It’s a good thing that scout was anonymous because he already looks pretty dumb.