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Alex Len set for larger role with Atlanta Hawks in 2019-20

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After enjoying his best season in the NBA with Atlanta, there’s more to come from Alex Len as he steps into a more prominent role.

Milwaukee Bucks v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Jasear Thompson/NBAE via Getty Images

With the madness of the NBA draft and free agency now in the rear-view mirror — less so of the madness from the Atlanta Hawks’ perspective — attention now slowly turns to the upcoming season.

Once again, it was a summer of changes for the Atlanta Hawks, as they welcomed draft selections De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Bruno Fernando while saying goodbye to players such as Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince.

Another player that the Hawks bade farewell to was center Dewayne Dedmon, who departed in free agency for the Sacramento Kings, signing a reported three year, $40 million deal.

Dedmon enjoyed two successful years in Atlanta as the starting center, with Alex Len serving as a backup — coming off of the bench primarily — during Dedmon’s final season with the Hawks.

With the roster changes during the summer — the departure of Dedmon, the drafting of Bruno Fernando, the Omari Spellman trade (which includes the acquisition of a player who certainly won’t be prioritized in the rotation as Spellman was, in the form of Damion Jones), the Miles Plumlee trade resulting in the acquisition of wing Chandler Parsons and with Vince Carter’s Atlanta future still uncertain at this stage — Alex Len is suddenly (and by some margin) the team’s best center option.

Len is undoubtedly the team’s starting center heading into this season and is in line for a much larger role this season than his first season in Atlanta where he averaged 20 minutes per game.

The team’s center depth is certainly weakened this season and it probably consists of Len, John Collins (who isn’t a full-time center, but will certainly play there this season), Bruno Fernando and Damian Jones — that’s it, unless the Hawks add another big.

After Len and Collins, there’s obviously a considerable drop-off in terms of the team’s quality in center options and while Fernando is intriguing as an NBA prospect, he’s still an NBA rookie — rookies are, generally speaking, not great NBA players. There are exceptions, of course, but generally speaking...

So, off of the bat, the importance of Alex Len is amplified simply because of the roster choices the Hawks made this summer, and should he pick up an injury it would leave the Hawks in a bit of a tough bind.

Thankfully for the Hawks, Len has proved himself largely durable for the most part throughout his career so far. Out of his six NBA seasons, Len has three 75+ game seasons (including last year in Atlanta) and two other seasons where he played 69 games — injuries haven’t really been an issue for Len in the NBA so far (touch wood).

This proved very useful when the Hawks were able to slot an NBA starting-caliber center in the form of Len when Dewayne Dedmon was injured— missing 38 games in his two seasons with Atlanta.

This means that we have some reference material of Len in the Hawks starting lineup in the absence of Dedmon, and we can kind of get an eye in for how the Hawks will look next season with Len as the starting center.

Though, relevant reference material is a little harder to come by, as some of those games where Len replaced Dedmon in the lineup, there was an absence of John Collins, so for that reason alone there’s probably not a ton of point of looking at games where Len was joined in the frontcourt by Omari Spellman.

Anyways, we’re going to take a dive into some film of Len in starting lineup in the absence of Dedmon, but also with Trae Young, Kevin Huerter and John Collins playing — again, it’s just to get an eye in for what the Hawks could look like on offense going forward into this season.

For the most part, the primary pick-and-roll action is run between Trae Young and John Collins, which is what you’d expect to be the case — the identity of the Hawks amongst league fans is pretty much that duo...it’s also the best action the Hawks can probably run anyways. So nothing really jumps out there.

When they do this Len can take up residence either in the paint on the weak-side but more often than not, he’s stationed a bit more so on the perimeter. Of course, it’s not his exclusive role on offense, but in many ways he’ll fill the space Dedmon left, and it begins with the three-pointer. In fact, it’s probably the most important thing Len can bring to the table.

Len’s ability to make the three-pointer (shooting 36% from three last season) is essential to spacing the floor and giving the Hawks and Young more options on offense. If Len isn’t able to hit that shot, it hurts the Hawks in what they want to achieve offensively.

Take this play for example — Young and Collins combine in the pick-and-roll and Len is in the corner. Collins draws LaMarcus Aldridge away from Len, who is found by Young for the open three-point attempt:

The fact he missed the shot shouldn’t negate what happened in that play: it’s Young and Collins primarily in the pick-and-roll, and then Len can space the floor and provide another option, should a help defender decide to double-down/rotate on Collins and/or Young can’t get anything to go himself.

On this play, Collins and Young engage in the pick-and-roll with Len in the corner, Young probably should pass first time to the corner, puts up a poor shot, gets it back and then finds Len outside the arc for three:

Here, it’s now former Hawk Kent Bazemore this time that combines with Collins, with Len in the corner. The pass to Len is made, but the three-pointer is missed:

This was an interesting play where the Cavaliers doubled Young off of the pick-and-roll, Collins rolls down the lane where he is met by Len’s defender (Larry Nance Jr.), Young passes to DeAndre’ Bembry, who slips it to the open Len in the corner for the open three-point attempt:

Again, Young and Collins execute the pick-and-roll, Young finds Len in the corner for the three-point attempt:

Here was an interesting play where Young-Collins go through their action, nothing materializes down the middle, Young passes to Len in the corner, and Young and Len then run through a secondary action where Len slips the pick-and-roll, the Spurs defend the rim well and Young has to go to Taurean Prince for a three-point attempt:

You get the idea: Len provides the Hawks with an option should the Young-Collins pick-and-roll not yield anything worthy for either player.

Len doesn’t exclusively chill out on the perimeter in Young-Collins pick-and-rolls, he sometimes represents the big inside as Young and Collins do their thing at the top of arc.

After the pressure is shown to Young off of the Collins screen, Collins takes it inside, draws the defense and finds Alex Len for the dunk:

Sometimes the roles are reversed and it’s Collins who looms on the perimeter and Len in the pick-and-roll, and this works well too, since Collins can also hit the three-pointer (shooting 35% from three last season).

On this play, Young and Len engage in the pick-and-roll with Collins on the perimeter, and Young finds Collins for the three-point attempt:

On this play, Young and Len work the pick-and-roll with Collins on the corner. Young squeezes inside and misses the left-handed layup this time, but had the option in the form of Collins in the corner:

This next play sees Len and Young in the pick-and-roll, Len rolls inside, Young finds Collins for a three-point attempt:

On occasion, Len and Collins both combine in some screening action up top, and it’s something I would love to see more of — especially some double-drag screen action.

Here, the double screen action from Collins and Len, Len dives inside and Young does a good job finding him with the bounce-pass for the bucket plus the foul:

Here’s another example, this time Collins rolls and Len hangs back for the three-point shot, only this time Young’s pass isn’t quite as crisp and Len can’t handle it and the Hawks have to reset:

I absolutely love this play — where you have two screeners (usually in a double-drag screen) and one dives to the rim and the other hangs back and provides an outside option. The Spurs ran a variation against the Hawks a few seasons back and it’s a play I think about often — I love it (which is fairly sad, I understand).

Anyways, David Lee (yeah, remember him?) and Pau Gasol are up top and set a screen for Patty Mills. Lee ducks to the basket while Pau stays at the three-point line, Dwight Howard strays too far from Gasol and Mills finds Pau for the three:

The Spurs ran this action on multiple occasions in that game, it’s a beautiful action and I’d love to see the Hawks run this action more with Len and Collins, especially given Collins’ ability to put pressure on the rim in pick-and-roll. Once he gets a head of steam, he’s tough to stop in the lane, and if the defense covers him perhaps there’s an avenue for Alex Len to get a look at a good three-pointer. You can also reverse this action too, and have Collins hang back and Len dive to the rim, though I’d prefer to have Collins dive to the rim on these action since he’s much more athletic (but you can’t argue with Len’s sheer size either).

Choices, sundry choices...

Anyways, for the most part, Len becomes more of a perimeter player when Collins is on the floor (regardless who is handling the ball: whether it was Young, Lin Bazemore or Huerter) — not exclusively but Collins does take priority in the pick-and-roll action. And that’s fine, since Len can hit the three, and Collins’ ability to also hit the three means the Hawks can change things up and reverse the roles if necessary.

When Collins is on the bench and Len is on the floor, Len is — as you would imagine — a bit more active in the pick-and-roll action than he is when Collins is on the floor, and he becomes the primary screener in pick-and-roll plays.

This worked well last season because the Hawks had Vince Carter to stretch the floor at power forward but the Hawks have less options for that this season in situations where Collins is on the bench. If Chandler Parsons (pending injury concerns) and Jabari Parker can space the floor somewhat efficiently at the power forward spot, that’d be a big boost for the Hawks when Collins is on the bench and they want to maintain their shooting.

The starting lineup conversation is one that you can have later, but the four-man lineup of Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Alex Len wasn’t awful last season

In the total of 167 minutes they played together, the Hawks were only -11 in total plus/minus (which, given their record, isn’t awful) and shot 34% from three-point range. It’s also not really fair to compare that to the same four-man lineup with Dedmon replacing Len, which totalled a -51 in plus/minus but that lineup also played significantly more minutes than the one featuring Len: 666 minutes — that four-man lineup also shot 39% from three.

Defensively, the numbers point to the four-man lineup with Len as being the better one (sporting a defensive rating 107.7 compared to 114.1 with Dedmon, but again, the lineup featuring Dedmon played significantly more minutes) but I don’t believe in that because Len is a worse defensive player than Dedmon.

The defense is another rabbit hole you can climb into with Len — more so wanted to cover the offensive fit today — and though I’m not massive on Len as an overall defender, he has his moments and he can block shots. He’s fine, ‘it’s whatever’.

Though he isn’t as strong as a defender as Dedmon, doesn’t have as good hands as Dedmon, or as good of a shooter as Dedmon or have as good of a celebration after a three-pointer as Dedmon, Alex Len can fill the void he left behind. He can do everything Dedmon can, just on a bit of a lesser scale. And that’s fine.

Len’s size and shooting ability at his size is going to prove a valuable commodity for the Hawks and this season represents a golden opportunity for Len, who is stepping into an expanded role at the perfect time as he enters into a contract year.

Will he be ready for the challenge? We shall see...