It hadn’t really worked out for Alex Len in the NBA in his first five seasons in the NBA.
Having being drafted by Phoenix in 2013 with the fifth overall pick, Len’s NBA career hadn’t panned out the way some may have expected — granted, Len was just one player in that infamous 2013 draft that hadn’t performed to their draft position (though, in time that class has redeemed itself somewhat).
After signing the qualifying offer with Phoenix in 2017 and becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2018, Len signed with the Atlanta Hawks on a two-year deal. It was a big win for Hawks GM Travis Schlenk, who saw Len as a part of their future and present.
“A big part, still, of the game is rim protection and that’s what those guys give,” said Schlenk prior to training camp. “With Alex, we see a guy who’s still only 25 years old and we think there’s upside with him. The other guys, one thing that’s real important with our skill guys is you got to get them open. You need big bodies to set screens to get guys open looks. When we signed those guys, that’s what we we’re going through . . . those are real important parts of the game still — rim protection and you need guys to set screens to get guys open.”
Lloyd Pierce was similarly excited as to what Len could provide to the Hawks’ offense.
“...When you have a big guy like Alex Len and you can play pick and roll with Jeremy and Trae in the mid pick-and-roll with Alex, we’re still trying to get to the rim and what that does is presents additional problems,” said Pierce.
Though some were unsure what to expect from Len in a new environment and with a new team, he would go on to enjoy his best season in the NBA so far with the Hawks as he averaged a career-high in scoring 11 points per game on 49% shooting from the field and 36% from three-point range.
Len’s minutes per game remained, pretty much, identical as his final season in Phoenix — 20.2 in Phoenix in 17-18, 20.1 in 18-19 — but a huge development in Len’s game, missing from previous seasons, was his ability to shoot from three-point distance.
Heading into this season, Len had attempted just 25 threes in his first five years in the league and absolutely smashed that as he attempted 204 threes this year in his fist season with the Hawks, making 74 of them for 36%.
What helped Len enjoy success, not from three but from the field in general this season, is that he got great looks on a lot of his attempts.
In his final season with the Suns, the frequency of Len’s shots that were open/wide open (as defined by NBA.com — 4-6 feet is considered open, 6+ feet as wide open) was just 20.6%. In Atlanta this season, the frequency of Len’s shots that were considered open was 42%, with 27.9% of those falling under the category of ‘wide open.’
Len was a beneficiary of not only Lloyd Pierce’s three-point happy offense but the Hawks’ ball movement — they worked Len into great looks.
Here’s an example in New Orleans, the extra pass from Taurean Prince giving Len all the time he needs from the corner to hit the three:
In Milwaukee, the Hawks set up a nice look for Len with some screen-penetration action, with Len screening for Bazemore, who drives towards the paint before kicking back to Len for an open three:
Len’s ability to shoot the three (and at a decent percentage) really helps the Hawks in what they want to do offensively. The Hawks love stretching the floor and they love to get threes up — basically everyone on the team can take and make threes and it just adds to the versatility on offense, they’re not limited.
Before training camp, Pierce referenced a quote from his assistant coach Melvin Hunt — ‘Like the three, love the rim.’ Len fits that bracket nicely and his season is reflective of that with the majority of Len’s shots either coming near the rim or from three — there wasn’t a ton of shots in between. This ‘heat map’ I think does the most justice when it comes to plotting Len’s shots on a chart:
You can see from the chart that the majority of Len’s shots come from four zones — the rim (obviously), the top of the key three and the two corner threes. No matter where Len shoots the three, it all works out to similar percentages — 35% in the left corner, 37% in the right corner and 36% at the top.
It was a big step in the career of Alex Len.
“Repetitions,” said Len of his expanded range during the Hawks’ exit interviews. “Being in the gym, just shooting. The more I shot, the more comfortable I got. As soon as I started making them in the game, my confidence kept growing and growing and I got more comfortable with it.”
The outside shot in tandem with his inside game made for an effective combination and it’s something Len was intentional about working on throughout the season — the inside-out game.
“...One day, I’ll go with the big man coach, next day I’ll go shoot with Nate (Babcock), with the guards,” said Len. “Helping with Trae (Young) and Kevin (Huerter), shoot with them. Hop back and forth, I don’t want to do the same routine over and over, you have to switch it up.”
Len predominantly came off the bench this season (46 games off the bench) but due to injuries and rest — whether it was Dewayne Dedmon, John Collins or Omari Spellman — Len also got to start a lot of games (31 games started).
When Len played — be it from the bench or starting — he was effective.
On 11 occasions this season, Len scored 20 or more points in a game — most of these coming off of the bench — with a career-high 33 points coming late in the season against the Milwaukee Bucks in April.
Len was mostly solid for the Hawks but had some downs at times.
Len has had issues with fouls at times over his career and was limited by foul trouble at times, it felt like often, this season. Sometimes his hands also let him down near the rim, particularly around the beginning of the season, with Trae Young left frustrated at times that his pinpoint passes were sometimes dropped or mishandled by Len.
But for the most part, Len enjoyed a strong season where he established truly himself in the NBA after five, mostly, mediocre seasons in Phoenix, and did it with a smile on his face.
“This season was great, probably the most fun I’ve had in a while,” said Len of the season. “I know we didn’t win a lot of games but we definitely proved a lot of people wrong. I think ESPN had us for like 18, 17 wins before the season and we had almost 30. We have a great future ahead of us and a good young core, so we just have to put in a good summer and then go out and good things are going to happen.”
Len’s role next season could change, depending on the free agency status of Dewayne Dedmon, who will likely become a free agent once again this summer. Of course, it’s very early to speculate given the nature of free agency and what the Hawks decide to do in the draft.
But what is for sure is that Len enjoyed his best season so far of his career with the Hawks and things for Len, just like the Hawks are looking up.