Alex Len is coming off of a season in which he added a critical skill for a big man in the modern NBA: he added an actual perimeter shot. After launching just 29 three-point attempts during his first five seasons in the league, all with the Phoenix Suns, he converted an impressive 36.3 percent of his 204 attempts last season. For the first time in his career, Len delivered consistent offensive value for an entire NBA season.
Having now proven himself as a useful big man in an NBA rotation, more improvement will be needed from the 26-year-old as to continue to build his value as he heads towards unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2020, when there will many teams with money to spend and likely few players that will be able to command big money on the market.
He was acquired last summer on a two year, $8.5 million contract after being the No. 5 overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft. He arrived in Atlanta with reduced expectations as he was no longer associated with the draft capital the Suns had used to acquire him. The Hawks made a similar move this past summer when they inked the second overall selection from the 2014 NBA draft, Jabari Parker, to a more lucrative contract (and one that includes a player option in the second year of the deal).
Most of the improvement that Len needs to demonstrate as to grow his value is on the defensive end of the court. He is a solid rim protector. Opponents converted 57.6 percent of shots inside of six feet when Len was defending in the paint last season, which is not a significant distant from the best shot blockers in the league, such as Rudy Gobert (51.6 percent) and Joel Embiid (52.2 percent). However, that’s not going to be quite good enough for a big man that is largely limited to drop coverage when defending the pick-and-roll. He’s a good athlete for a player that measures in at 7’1 and 250 pounds, so if he shows some improvement this season in defending on the perimeter, or at least at the point of attack in ball screen actions, it would not be completely unexpected.
Largely considered to be entering the 2019-20 NBA season as the Hawks starter at center, there might be some possibility (a bit) that he ends up playing off of the bench again this season. He’s still a foul-prone defender. He averaged 4.7 fouls per 36 minutes last season, which was in line with his career numbers (4.9 fouls per 36 minutes). Some NBA coaches like to avoid the disruption a big man that finds himself in foul trouble too often can do to rotation by heading to he bench ahead of plan. Damian Jones, acquired in a trade in July, could start even if the result would be that he still played significantly fewer minutes than Len this season.
Another reason that Jones might unexpectedly start is that he can function in games in which Atlanta might want to switch at all five positions defensively. One of the two games in which Len was a healthy DNP last season was during a late November game versus the Charlotte Hornets in which (after a first quarter adjustment) the Hawks were switching one through five on almost every possession when Kemba Walker was on the court.
His other came during a game in the final weeks of the season against the Portland Trailblazers where the Hawks’ coaching staff were asking their bigs to “show” pretty strongly on the perimeter when defending the pick-and-roll. Jones could offer more flexibility in terms of defensive scheme than does Len apart from the latter having greatly improved in the area during the off-season.
However, the reason Len is quite likely to function as the starting center for the entirety of the season for the Hawks is because of how his (new and improved) offensive skill set allows him to compliment the play of John Collins, who is expected to have an even bigger role on that end of the court this year. Len could stand to finish a stronger at the rim (63.8 percent last season), but he’s good enough both at diving to the rim and spotting up on the perimeter that it allows Collins to operate where he will be most effective depending upon his match up in any given game.
In fact, Len’s development as a shooter last year has ended up being fundamentally critical to the Hawks roster-building decisions during this off-season. If Len had not demonstrated a reliable perimeter shot last year it’s very unlikely they would have believed in the plan to overhaul the center position. For example, they may not have felt they could have traded Omari Spellman (sent out in the deal for Jones) and his equity as a shooter apart from Len’s improvement in that area. Len is the only returning center from last season’s roster as the organization continues to insist (for good or otherwise) that John Collins is a power forward.
When considering the role that Collins is anticipated to have offensively, it’s going to be interesting to see if he and Trae Young have their minutes staggered at all. Collins may need that time to grow into a scorer that is less dependent on the creation ability of others. If so, Len might be the player that logs the most minutes next to Collins this season if he can reduce his tendency to land in foul trouble. It really can’t be overstated how critical it is to deploy Collins next to a center that offers both rim protection on defense and skill versatility on offense. Even if Len is not on the Hawks roster beyond his current contract, the organization could learn a lot this season about how to build around Young and Collins going forward.