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Away from draft pick pressure, Alex Len enjoys the best season of his career

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2013 No. 5 pick Alex Len may not become an All-Star, but he’s emerging in a new place.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA — Alex Len is feeling right at home on the floor with the Hawks.

After five seasons of battling injuries in Phoenix, the 7-foot-1 center said that he’s feeling healthier than he ever has and it shows — Len is currently putting up the best statistics of his career. On the second night of back-to-backs he’s averaging 13.7 points and 6 rebounds, and in the last six games, he’s averaged 11.5 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per night. Most marks are above his career averages of 7.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, and a block per game while playing the same 20 minutes each night that he’s always averaged during his time in the league.

In addition to his health, another key to Len’s newfound success is simple.

“My teammates,” he said. “I set screens, I roll high to the rim and I know that they’re going to find me. We have an unselfish team with everyone moving the ball and everyone playing the right way. I know if I set a hard screen and roll right to the rim, I’m going to get it.”

Now at the halfway mark of the season, Len said that he feels this current group of Hawks have all learned each other’s tendencies and are starting to gel well together.

“Trae [Young]’s a willing passer. If you’re open, he’s going to find you,” he said. “Jeremy Lin and I usually sit on the plane together and next to each other in the locker room, so we have a great relationship.”

The newest weapon Len has revealed in his offensive arsenal this season is his three-point shot. So far through 41 games this season, he’s put up 68 three-point attempts, compared to the 25 combined attempts he had in his previous five seasons with the Suns. He’s made 20 of those attempts so far, around the 30 percent range from beyond the arc. 30 percent isn’t anything special, but it’s a lot better than not shooting at all.

“When I hit a couple of threes, it opens up the floor. I can drive then, or I can make a play for somebody else,” he said. “I think it was just [Atlanta Hawks head] coach [Lloyd Pierce] letting me shoot them. I always knew how to shoot all of my life. Before I had coaches who didn’t want me to shoot, they wanted me to play to the rim, rebound, the simple things. Pierce was like ‘I know you can shoot. If you plan on working on it, then you can shoot it,’ and it’s been working for me.”

Len enjoyed two breakout games in particular at the turn of the calendar year at Indiana and Washington. Against the Pacers, he put up 19 points, seven rebounds, two assists, a block and a steal. Against the Wizards two days later, he scored a season-high 24 points to go along with 11 rebounds and three blocks.

“Offensive rebounding has been the biggest thing,” Pierce said of Len’s big nights. “Being a presence at the rim. We get a lot of drop-offs to him when we get downhill with Jeremy, Trae and Kevin [Huerter]. Just being big, and hanging at the rim. Anytime we get one of our bigs, John [Collins], Dewayne [Dedmon], or Alex to the rim on a pick-and-roll, we’re creating layup opportunities. More importantly, we collapse the defense and create three-point opportunities. If anyone is playing up on our shooters, we have a seven-footer who’s done a great job, especially the last couple of games, presenting those screen-and-roll opportunities.”

Len was the Suns’ highest draft pick in the last three decades when the franchise selected him fifth overall in 2013. The consensus from the Phoenix faithful was that he fell short of expectations; his size and his array of post moves was supposed to help usher in the next era of Suns basketball. Instead, he wallowed in Phoenix, with injuries and inconsistent play defining his tenure.

While dealing with multiple injuries and the pressures of being a high draft pick were both tough to deal with early on for Len, he said that keeping his family around helped him focus on the game instead of the public opinion.

Len’s current rookie point guard, Young, has faced a lot of public scrutiny this season as the No. 5 pick and having been traded for the current Rookie of the Year front-runner Luka Doncic. Len said that he hasn’t had to give a motivational talk to Young, and that the point guard has handled the criticism better than he did as a rookie.

“He already knows. He’s dealing with it well,” Len said. “He’s handling it really well.”

Atlanta represents a fresh start for Len. A city that isn’t holding him up to the standard of becoming this generation’s Zydrunas Ilgauskas. The Hawks are a club that wants him to simply play ball, which is all he wanted to do from the start.

“Keep your head on basketball,” he said, giving advice to high draft picks. “It doesn’t matter what people think, or what they say, it’s all about basketball. It’s about what’s going on here. You’ve got to put the work in, and try to get better every single day. The simple stuff. Don’t worry about everything on the outside, just focus on basketball.”