As the NBA has morphed, over the last few years, into a shooter’s league, big men are routinely asked to expand their game well beyond the painted area in order to provide that extra bit of spacing offensively. Given that centers are normally defended by the other team’s best rim protector, drawing that player out of the paint opens up driving lanes and finishing opportunities for teammates. If the defensive center stays rooted in the paint, a prolific outside shooter can have a field day.
Alex Len has changed with the times, opening up his outside game significantly last year. For the first time in his career, his coaches told him to fire away from beyond the three-point line upon arrival in Atlanta. He repaid them kindly, returning the gesture with 36 percent three-point shooting on more than six attempts per 100 possessions on the floor. After spending five years in Phoenix and shooting just 25 threes throughout his time in the desert, Len’s game blossomed in Atlanta last season as he posted the best offensive season of his career.
However, the area in which big men still have their largest impact is in the paint. The largest players on the floor are usually the best finishers, as the best big men can routinely hit 65 percent or more of their shots within a few feet of the basket. This is where Len’s game falls woefully short, as it has throughout his career.
In the last five years, among seven-footers with at least 50 non-dunk attempts around the rim, Len has ranked 30th out of 30 in 2018-19, 29th out of 32 in 2017-18, 34th out of 34 in 2016-17, 33rd out of 33 in 2015-16, and 25th out of 30 in 2014-15 in field goal percentage.
That’s not merely bad, that’s consistently woeful.
There are three key reasons why Len’s finishing is so incredibly poor compared to his peers. First, he lacks quite a bit of vertical explosion, which forces him to have to load up when he needs to jump at the rim,. From there, he goes for a lot of tip-ins, which count in the statistics as attempts but have a much lower success rate than normal non-dunk finishes. Finally, he has relatively weak hands for his size, which leads him to try difficult tip-ins over grabbing offensive rebounds and defenders stripping him as he goes up. All three of these reasons are related in one way or another.
Most finishing stats include all attempts within three or four feet of the rim, but those shots can be wildly different based on the situation. Because the NBA counts tips that go in the general vicinity of the basket as shot attempts, Len ends up with a lot of no-hope attempts on his resume, which significantly reduces his shooting percentage at the rim. There aren’t specific statistics that track these tip attempts (at least as far as I could find), but Len tries a lot of them.
Len’s strengths and weaknesses are nicely summed up in all these tip attempts — he’s an absolutely massive human being and has no trouble carving out enough space to get a hand on the ball, but his lack of explosion and soft hands make it difficult for him to actually catch the ball. Instead of trying to corral the rebound, Len will often tap the ball back at the rim and hope for the best.
When Len does catch the ball, either on a rebound or in pick-and-roll with one of the Hawks’ perimeter playmakers, he doesn’t have the vertical explosion to finish strong in traffic. As big as he is, he still has to elevate to get the ball to the rim, and his lack of explosion in his legs leads him to swing his arms through the jump. The problem there is that when he has the ball in his hands, he’s exposing it to prying hands.
The added motion he needs to explode to the rim wastes precious tenths of a second that allow shot blockers to get into the play and erase his shot.
Len can’t catch the ball around his shoulders and explode from there, he has to bring the ball back down in order to swing his arms through to elevate to the rim. This lack of explosiveness in his legs makes it easier for defenders to poke the ball away before he swings his arms back up and gives fellow big men the time they need to recover for blocks or stronger contests.
His stone-like hands hurt him in pick-and-roll and around the rim, where he lacks a lot of touch even when he doesn’t get the ball knocked out of his hands.
It’s almost amazing that a player with poor touch documented at this level is simultaneously able to shoot free throws at an average level and knock down threes at a good rate. When he has the chance to get set with no defenders around, he has no issues; an elongated shooting motion isn’t a problem for big men like it is for other players, as they’re usually so open on three-point attempts that the extra time is there for them to do whatever they want. Around the rim, the extra beat Len takes to do just about everything leads to shots clanging off the rim or not even getting there in the first place.
At this point in his career, it’s unlikely that his finishing issues are going to drastically improve. As he ages into his late 20’s, his explosiveness is only going to get worse, not better, though there may be specific things Len can do in the short term in order to increase his leg strength and explosiveness.
Without being in practice every day with him, it’s impossible to know from the outside, but it could also be a mental thing; Len may have to rewire his brain to trust his legs to get him to the rim, which would cut down on his catch-to-finish time and prevent smaller defenders from pawing at the ball on his way up. We often talk about mental blocks as an issue of confidence, but it doesn’t seem like that is a particular problem for Len in this area. It may not even be a conscious thing; it could be that he’s always swung his arms through to jump and never retrained his brain to keep his hands high. One would think that some coach along the way told him to not bring the ball down, but without specific, consistent training in this area, that sort of thing won’t stick with a player who has jumped the same way his entire life.
It remains to be seen how much Len’s problems at the rim affect this particular Hawks team. He’ll see a lot more time alongside John Collins this year as Len moves into Dewayne Dedmon’s role from last season, in which the three-point shot will be far more important than finishing at the rim. Dedmon wasn’t anything special at the rim last season either (though he was still miles better than Len), but he still provided a ton of offensive value as a floor spacer. If Len’s shooting last year is the new baseline for him, he’ll be able to do a lot of the same things Dedmon did in 2018-19 to open the floor for Collins and Trae Young.