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Alex Len is lost in an inconsistent rotation during a vital year of his NBA career

Phoenix Suns' Alex Len sits on the bench as his team trails the Utah Jazz during the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Kim Raff)
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While Phoenix Suns fans bicker on Twitter about the playing time of rookies Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender and Tyler Ulis, fourth-year center Alex Len is floating in the nothingness that is being in and out of the team’s rotation, all during his most important year of his career.

The 23-year-old fifth overall pick from the 2013 NBA Draft is approaching restricted free agency this summer after the team did not agree to an extension with him by this year’s deadline.

What our Kevin Zimmerman called as “beta-testing” for Len in late October is still happening in his contract year.

Len is playing just 19.6 minutes per game, his lowest average since his rookie season and just 15.3 in January.

If Len’s terrible play last season continued, this would be somewhat understandable, but it hasn’t.

Len’s shooting 50 percent from the field, up over seven percent from last season, and his 17.6 rebounding percentage, 14.3 turnover ratio and 55.6 true shooting percentage are all the best of his career.

He’s not back to his 60 percent number in the restricted area around the rim from 2014-15, but Len’s 57 percent shooting is eight points better than last season, a good enough number that the Suns will be hopeful as a progression back to the mean.

The dark shadow over Len’s season, however, is his overall per possession numbers. His net rating of -11 is the second-worst on the team behind Brandon Knight. He boasts a poor 109.7 defensive rating and an even worse 98.8 offensive rating.

At a deeper glance, however, a lot of this is due to playing with Knight, who Len ran a two-man game with for a good portion of this season off the bench.

The Suns appeared to emphasize the second unit’s offensive sets around the two, and to say the least, it failed.

The offensive rating of the two together until Dec. 31 was 93.4, a horrific number, and when combined with a 110.1 defensive rating, gets a net rating of -16.7. They were the sixth-most-played Suns duo together during that time, extremely notable given they both don’t start (a duo of two starters, for example, was around a -5.0 net rating for either Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker together or Bledsoe and Tyson Chandler together).

Len played 67 percent of his total minutes in that span with Knight. His offensive rating in that time was 97.2, meaning the other third of his minutes had an uptick in his offensive efficiency without Knight.

In January, Len’s time with Knight dropped 18 percent to 49 and the per possession numbers were still horrific: 97.2 and 115.8 for a -18.5 net rating. Once again, though, Len’s overall offensive rating in the month of 103.8 means it spiked when Knight wasn’t with him, now half of the time instead of one-third.

While there isn’t a ton of lineup data featuring Len without Knight, the four lineups that do and have at least 23 minutes played have offensive ratings of 103.1, 128.9 and 102.4 and 104.4, the first lineup being the 83 minutes Len has played with the starters.

Defensively, Len can’t do much when the perimeter defense in front of him fails and he himself struggles to move his feet and defend ball screens, but he’s still managing to be a good rim protector.

Among players who defend at least four shots at the rim and average at least 16 minutes per game, Len is 15th out of the 70 qualified players in defensive field goal percentage at the rim, at 47.7 percent, or nearly 3 percent better than his 50.6 mark last season and 2 percent better than his 49.1 percentage in the best year of his career. Starting center Tyson Chandler, meanwhile, is outside the top 50 at 53.6 percent.

With the exception of four players, the guys ahead of Len are on good-to-great defensive teams, a claim Len himself cannot make. It would be safe to assume Len could flirt with a top-five spot on a good one.

If one had to assume what a wishlist for those evaluating Len coming into this season was, it would be for him to get back to his shooting percentages two years ago and maintain his good numbers defending the rim.

The stats say he’s done that.

Head coach Earl Watson did not sound like a coach who thought Len was playing well this season when he appeared on Doug and Wolf on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM in late January, giving him an “A” for effort.

“When he gets his opportunities, he has to make the best of them and I think he tries his best,” Watson said. “Sometimes it’s difficult in shorter minutes, but we love Alex Len.

“We feel like Alex Len is the future of the center position, with Dragan Bender and maybe Marquese Chriss. With young guys, that’s a blank canvas that has to shake out.”

Watson has made great moves for the future of the team, such as starting Chriss early in the season and moving Bender ahead of Jared Dudley in the rotation, but his in-game rotations still suggest he’s doing the most he can to win, while appearing to not consider the future of his team.

Yes, Chandler is playing great basketball. He’s also doing so on a 16-35 basketball team. Chandler is playing his 16th year in the NBA in the second year of a four-year deal, but he’s played at least 35 minutes in nine games, four of them coming since the start of 2017.

Watson was asked prior to Saturday’s game about the big man rotations and cited it has a lot to do with small-ball taking over, thus not giving Len someone he can match up with. He added that Len, in particular, doesn’t have the quickness to keep up with someone like DeMarcus Cousins on the perimeter.

The Suns are trying to figure out Len as much as possible before they possibly pay him a ton of money. Or, that’s what they should be doing. Whatever it is that they are doing, whether that’s playing Chandler more to win or sitting Len for supposedly underperforming, is a decision that makes it murky for general manager Ryan McDonough to approximate his value.

If Len does re-sign, he will be the team’s first major contract since the rapid rise of the salary cap. With T.J. Warren, Devin Booker and two top-10 picks from this year coming soon after, the team can’t afford to miss.

Watson’s rotations aren’t providing the team with the best outlook in a situation when they more than easily could have it, given they are 19 games under .500.

The limited chances for players like Len, Chriss, Bender and Ulis (and even Derrick Jones Jr. toward the end of the year) to showcase what they can and get more in-game experience is a window rebuilding teams need to take advantage of. The trade deadline could give some relief, but as of now, none is in sight.

For Len, especially, that’s a harrowing image for the Suns because, as Amin Elhassan of ESPN said in November, it’s difficult to say which side is right when it comes to how much the Ukrainian big man is worth. Right now, that’s still the case, which is more than likely leading to complicated negotiations between the two sides over the summer.

Arizona Sports’ Craig Grialou contributed to this story.

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