Alex Len’s path to the Valley began all the way back in the Summer of 2010.
As the director of player personnel for the Boston Celtics at the time, Ryan McDonough traveled to Vilnius, Lithuania in search of young, international talent at the Under-18 Championships.
“The gym was about 117 degrees,” McDonough recalled. “I think there were 32 people there, but I didn’t know Alex. I think he was 17 years old playing up with the 18-year-old group, and the kid came out and was blocking shots above the rim and rebounding. Now, he’s improved a lot since then, but you could see the raw, physical package.
“I mean obviously there aren’t a lot of guys in the world who are 7-foot-1 and could move like that and have that skill. So I was intrigued by him then. He was still trying to figure out what he was going to do. He ended up at the University of Maryland, and since then his game and his stock have skyrocketed.”
Flash forward three years to Thursday night, and McDonough, now the general manager of the Phoenix Suns, had what seemed to be a tough decision to make with the No. 5 overall pick. He could either take Len, who played two seasons in the ACC but still remains a rather raw prospect, or he could select potentially more proven talents in Ben McLemore, Nerlens Noel or Trey Burke.
But according to McDonough, the choice was never really that difficult.
“When Alex was there [at No. 5], the decision was clear,” he said. “It was very unpredictable. I think everybody, starting at No. 1 with Cleveland, nobody was really sure what they were doing even when they were on the clock. It didn’t give us a whole lot of time to prepare.
“Frankly, I thought Alex would be gone in the first four picks, because we did have him ranked higher than where he was picked at five.”
While McDonough noted that Len — who led the ACC with 2.1 blocks per game during his sophomore season despite playing just 26.4 minutes per contest — hasn’t scratched the surface on his development as a player yet, the Suns general manager wouldn’t go as far as to use the one word no fan base wants to hear when describing a top-5 pick.
“I wouldn’t classify him as a project,” said McDonough. “I think Alex is already very skilled…he’s got long arms, he has nice touch around the basket. He needs to get stronger, but he has gotten stronger since the season ended.
“I think that kind of comes with age, and I’m not even sure he’s done growing.”
Although Len might not be categorized as a project, he does come to the NBA with a bit of a red flag: his recent injury history.
Len underwent surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left ankle on May 3, and didn’t workout for teams at the NBA Combine or during individual visits.
“Our medical people took a close look at it,” said McDonough. “We are confident he won’t have issues going forward.”
Whether those issues come into play during his pro career remains to be seen, but like his general manager, Len appeared confident Thursday that his surgerically-repaired left ankle wouldn’t keep him off the court come October when the Suns open training camp.