As the Phoenix Suns’ 1-3 preseason has come with concerns of a leaky defense, too many turnovers, up-and-down play from its young forwards and another injury to T.J. Warren, the one surprise has come in the performance of fifth-year center Alex Len.
With only a game cut short due to an ejection Wednesday against Portland to mar the preseason, he scored in double-digits in the first three games, rebounded well and has been a consistent defensive presence at the rim.
Even before getting into a scuffle with Caleb Swanigan on Wednesday, he grabbed five boards, blocked two shots, added a steal and got to the foul line twice in 18 minutes.
“He’s been our most consistent player, and I think you can say he’s been our best player through the first three preseason games,” Suns general manager Ryan McDonough told Burns & Gambo on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.
“So with Alex, it’s important to keep in mind he’s only 24 years old. I think what’s helped him is our coaching staff has simplified his role offensively; we’re not going to him as much in the post in kind of static post-ups against set defenses. We’re putting him more in screen-and-roll action. He’s doing a good job setting screens for the guards and rolling to the basket and finishing.”
Len, even after missing all four of his field goal attempts Wednesday, is shooting 63 percent from the floor. He’s averaging 13.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 1.3 steals in 25 minutes per game.
Drafted as a do-it-all big with the skills to shoot jumpers and the vision to become a low-post play-maker, it’s become clear to the Suns over the past few years that simplifying Len’s game can perhaps bring the most out of him.
Let him rebound, blocks shots and rim-roll.
A 7-foot-1 player can make a career out of that, and Len has shown that in the first several preseason games.
And though it is the preseason, Len knows he’s fighting for a job out of the gates.
As the Suns toy with small-ball lineups and with veteran Tyson Chandler likely to eat up minutes at center, Len is fighting for playing time with second-year forwards Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. With one game left in the preseason this Friday, he’s taken advantage of backup center Alan Williams’ knee injury more than either.
This is a prove-it season, and he’s begun playing like it.
Taken fifth overall in the 2013 NBA Draft, Len represents the first big decision in McDonough’s tenure as general manager.
Four years into his NBA career, the 24-year-old center fell victim to poor play last year and a frugal free agent market. He returned to Phoenix on a one-year qualifying offer. In NBA terms, accepting that reality rather than finding a multi-year deal is a wake-up call, at least for a high lottery pick.
McDonough, who worked his way up the Boston Celtics’ front office ranks, knows the risks of drafting players after one or two years. Basketball heads will add that drafting big men comes with even more risk, as they generally take longer to develop.
“He’s scoring efficiently, he’s rebounding well, he’s protecting the rim,” McDonough said. “I think sometime with young bigs, it takes guys a little while to put it all together. He’s figured out his role and niche.”
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