In advance of the 2018-2019 NBA season, the Peachtree Hoops crew will preview each player on the current roster. The ninth edition breaks down the game of veteran center Alex Len.
Alex Len was an intriguing, high-ceiling prospect when the Phoenix Suns chose him with the No. 5 overall selection of the 2013 NBA draft, ahead of players like CJ McCollum, Steven Adams, Rudy Gobert and and even Giannis Antetokounmpo. Granted, some of those players have surpassed everyone’s expectation after being passed over by numerous teams. Still, the hindsight view of that draft shows how highly touted Len was entering the NBA after two seasons at the University of Maryland.
In five seasons with Phoenix, Len was never able to elevate his game above that of a role player on a team that dropped to the NBA cellar over the course of his tenure with the Suns. During his final three seasons with Phoenix, the team averaged 59 losses per season while Len’s numbers plateaued around nine points and five rebounds per game. After four seasons, the Suns did not extend Len’s rookie contract, but instead made a qualifying offer that resulted in a one-year deal and ultimately led to his 2018 free agency. That, of course, paved the way for the Hawks’ opportunity to give the Ukrainian big man a fresh start.
While Len did not necessarily live up to expectations in Phoenix, he is an intriguing player for a rebuilding Hawks team. He is just 25 years old and, although he struggled with injuries in college and during his rookie season, he has been a reliable player over last four seasons. The skills that led Phoenix to draft him five years ago still exist though have inconsistently shown up in occasional flashes so far in his NBA career.
Nevertheless, Len is a legitimate NBA center at 7’1 with plus athleticism and adequate ball skills for a man his size. He is not a big, slow, plodding center. Rather, he does a excellent job of cutting and moving in the NBA style of game that is played today. He is comfortable in screen and roll actions and dribble-hand off actions as well.
March 20, 2018 — Len cuts and catches the pass from Tyler Ulis and converts the easy dunk. Matched up against Pistons’ center Andre Drummond, Len finished this game with 19 points and 12 rebounds in 25 minutes, one of his best games of the 2017/18 season.
December 16, 2017 — In a simple but effective play, Len executes the dribble hand off to to create an open look for teammate, Troy Daniels. Matched up against Timberwolves’ center Karl-Anthony Towns, Len posted 12 points, 19 rebounds a 6 assists, perhaps his best game of the 2017/18 season.
The aspect of Len’s offensive game that does not align with today’s NBA game is shooting. Though his profile coming out of college showed the potential to be a decent jump shooter, he has not established himself as a player who can make jump shots at the NBA level. The majority of his shots come at the rim and, over the course of his five NBA seasons, he has progressively taken fewer shots outside of ten feet each season.
October 21, 2017 — Len misses the wide open jumper. This is just one miss, but this is a shot he has not been able to make consistently enough to force opponents to respect him as a jump shooter. Opponents can sag and give help at the rim when Len is playing on the perimeter.
Len’s shooting mechanics are not bad and he is a natural athlete. He simply has not been able to maintain the rhythm and confidence needed to be a reliable jump shooter. Some players struggle with rhythm when they arrive in the NBA and find the ball in their hands less frequently than at any level of basketball they have played before. Ultimately, Len reached the point of rarely taking jump shots over the past several seasons.
Perhaps his fresh start with the Hawks will be the opportunity he needs to regain his shooting stroke and confidence. Recent history shows that the skill of shooting is one of the most correctable basketball skills as evidence by a number of players including Hawks center Dewayne Dedmon, who emerged as a solid jump shooter last season. If Len can make himself into a reliable shooter, it would make a very strong impact on his value as a player. If he can’t, he can still contribute but will struggle to lift himself above that of a bench role player whose playing time is dictated by game flow and match-ups.
On the defensive end of the floor, Len is still a bit of a question mark in some ways, even after five NBA seasons. He has the size to defend at the center position and the athleticism to defend in space. The reality is that he is coming from a franchise that has performed near the bottom of the league defensively over the past several seasons making it difficult to assess how Len might perform in a stronger defensive environment playing with players who are more disciplined and committed on the defensive end of the floor.
December 13, 2017 — Len covers space laterally to defend the ball and get to the rim to block Jonas Valanciunas’ shot.
Len is a long player but does not have overwhelming length for a player his size. In 2013, his wingspan was measured at 7-3.5 at the NBA combine, but his athleticism, for a player his size, and his length profile as a player indicate that he has the tools to be an impact player defensively. His defensive rating last season was terrible (110.2) but the Suns were slightly better defensively when he was on the floor, which could be insightful.
The bottom line is that Len has the tools to defend and, perhaps more importantly, has shown the willingness to defend. He joins a team that is young and rebuilding with players who are learning to play at the NBA level. Still, the fresh start of joining a team with a new head coach who is determined to establish a strong defensive culture might be just the situation Len needs in order to thrive on the defensive end of the floor.
Though he has moved from one rebuilding team to another, Len has found himself on a roster that is less crowded with bigs. In Phoenix, he competed for playing time with veteran Tyson Chandler. In the 2016, the Suns landed center Dragan Bender and power forward Marquese Chriss, both chosen with top ten picks. Those selections could be construed as an indication the Suns had lost confidence in Len and were looking for other options in terms of building blocks at the four and five spots.
Atlanta’s frontcourt is less crowded and provides a great opportunity for Len to play solid minutes off the bench giving him the chance to get himself pointed in the right direction. With that said, he may be able to send his career trending towards the promising expectations surrounding him when he entered the league.
Dedmon and John Collins should be the clear starters, but there should be plenty of bench minutes for Len as his competition is veteran Miles Plumlee and rookie Omari Spellman. Len should start the season ahead of Plumlee and Spellman on the depth chart. If the Hawks move Dedmon as some point during the season (or if he struggles with injury), Len may even find himself in a starting role.
Len should be comfortable when he finds himself on the floor with Trae Young. Len thrives when paired with a strong guard who likes to use screens from big men to free them up for shots as well as guards who can find athletic bigs who are strong cutters and rim runners.
While Hawks fans should not expect a miraculous break out season for Len, they should be excited and intrigued by the possibilities of what may become of Len in Atlanta. The biggest question, as noted above, is whether he can find his rhythm and force opponents to respect his jump shot. If he can do that, he can be a solid rotational player for the Hawks and could perhaps develop into an integral player the Hawks may want to keep beyond the two-year contract to which they signed him.
If he struggles as a shooter and continues his trend as a mostly one-dimensional offensive player, his value will be more marginal. NBA rosters are full of reasonably athletic big men who can move and take up space but cannot shoot. In fact, those words precisely define Len’s teammate in Plumlee, as well as many other big men (and other members of the Plumlee family) around the league.
The earliest signs to be looking for this season is whether Len is actively pulling the trigger on jump shots. Making jump shots early in the season is not immediately important, but if he is taking them, it is an indication that he is striving to move that part of his game forward. It is also a strong indication that the Hawks are asking him to be a willing shooter and that the organization has confidence that he can become a reliable shooter.
With that said, if he is passing up wide open jump shots, Len’s ceiling becomes a cookie cutter bench big that can get up and down the court but limits the team’s offensive output and gets Len schemed off the floor when opponents want to play small and super fast. The final result remains to be seen but there is plenty of intrigue with the newly acquired big man.