After two weeks of radio silence from the Atlanta Hawks, general manager Travis Schlenk and his staff have sprung to life, (almost) completing two trades and finally agreeing to their first signing of the summer in the span of about a week. First came the Jeremy Lin acquisition from Brooklyn, then the blockbuster Carmelo Anthony-Dennis Schröder swap, and now, Atlanta is completing the remainder of their roster, starting with center Alex Len, who agreed terms on a two-year pact worth $8.5 million on Saturday.
Len, who will likely come off the bench behind John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon, is unlike the majority of his big man counterparts on the Hawks in that he is a pure center – in five years in Phoenix, he took just 22 three-pointers and was firmly rooted in the paint. More than 80 percent of his shots came at the rim in 2017-18, which doubled as his most efficient season to date, but offense remains the weaker side of the floor for him.
Armed with below-average hands to go with below-average finishing, his shot selection somewhat overstates his efficiency. While making almost 57 percent of his shots is undeniably a positive, when you consider how many of those shots come around the basket, you would hope for some level of improvement as he continues to age. 57 percent is his best mark from the field in his career and is up significantly over his third and fourth seasons with the Suns, but he’ll need to take another leap forward in order to become an above-average contributor on that end of the court.
His inability to shoot outside of a few feet also hurts his efficiency and long-term upside – while technically possible, it’s very unlikely the Hawks will have him shooting three-pointers any time soon. An uptick in free throw shooting would be a good start for Len, who gets fouled at a high rate but converts at roughly 70 percent at the line with no improvement since coming into the league in 2013.
What Len lacks on offense, he makes up for on defense with strong rim protection and rebounding. Opponents within six feet of the basket made, on average, 6.2 percentage points fewer of their shots when defended by Len last season, and teams took far fewer shots at the rim when Len was defending than when he was on the bench, a good sign for any big man.
Half of rim protection is deterring shots altogether and although the Suns’ starting unit contained reputable shot blocker Tyson Chandler, they were better at actually protecting the basket when Len was on the floor in 2017-18. Atlanta will hope he’ll bring that same level of production to the table for them, as most of the perimeter talent in front of him will lack heavily defensively, especially if Len is coming off the bench alongside rookies Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, and Omari Spellman.
Always a strong rebounder, Len has ranked well above average in both offensive and defensive rebounding throughout his career. He uses his large 7’1 frame well to hold opposing big men off the glass and vacuum up rebounds for himself.
Evaluating Len on what has been a torrid run of Phoenix teams over the last five years is difficult, though it’s not as if his move to Atlanta will all of a sudden put him in a winning situation. As a rookie, he played just 362 total minutes on the 2013-14 Suns team that shocked the world and finished 48-34, but since then, the team has been mired in mediocrity and downright poor play across the board as the continue their post-Steve Nash rebuild for what will be the seventh consecutive season.
Now moved on from Phoenix, where the pressure to perform as the fifth overall pick was higher, Len will be able to focus on accentuating the parts of his game that work and perhaps growing the parts that don’t in a low-stakes environment to build his value over the next two years. He’ll play a significant role off the bench as the backup center this season for Atlanta and there will be plenty of opportunities for him to show what he can do in that role.