PHOENIX — Growing up in the coal mining town of Antratsyt, Ukraine, Alex Len’s first love was gymnastics, a sport typically dominated by pint-sized people.
That’s not Len, who eventually would sprout to 7-foot-1. He really never had a chance, at least in gymnastics.
“I was the tallest in the group, so they told me right away, ‘you’re not going to be good,’” Len said.
The tale of Len’s transition to basketball reads like a classic story of every giant who was too awkward, too shy, or simply too blissfully unaware to take up the game without prompting.
Len was first “discovered” (he was hard to miss) by his high school’s physical education teacher and quickly thrown onto the basketball team, despite the fact that he knew nothing about the game.
“So I worked out a few times, and we went to the state championship,” he said. “I was playing for my city, but I didn’t even know how to play. I was just the tallest kid, blocking shots and stuff.”
Len showed off a tantalizing combination of size, balance and coordination that could only come from years spent on a balance beam. His talent was obvious and people took notice.
Len was quickly offered a spot at Dnipropetrovsk Higher College, a sports academy in central Ukraine, and moved away from home at 13, to master the game.
A decade later, the same could be said for Len today. Now, in his fourth year with the Suns, the athleticism and skills that made him a promising top five pick still show. Yet, the Suns did not offer Len a contract extension, and his future with the team remains in question. His potential remains a blur.
In March of last year, the Suns took on a 58-6 Warriors team that was trying to win its 48th straight game at home.
There was Len blowing past all-NBA defender Draymond Green and throwing a blind, wrap-around pass to beat a scrambling Andrew Bogut and set up Tyson Chandler for an easy dunk.
There was Len running off two screens to create room for a 20-foot jumper.
There was Len catching off a pick and roll, driving his way past Bogut and throwing down a vicious one-handed dunk.
The Warriors would go on to win that game and produce the best regular season record in NBA history, but for one night Len dominated them, to the tune of 26 points and 13 rebounds.
He’s had just two stretches all year in which he played at least 25 minutes in two or more games in a row, both of which came before December. He’s hit double-digit points single-digit times in 2017 and has just one double double in the new year. There’s clearly a disconnect between Len’s tantalizing upside and his production.
Typically, the combination of hard work and talent is a winning one in the NBA. And by most accounts Len is a talented player and an extremely hard worker.
“When everyone goes home at like 10 (after games), I just go to the gym and get some extra shots up and get on the grind and do some extra work,’’ Len said.
Suns general manager Ryan McDonough told NBA.com in 2015 that Len really cares about becoming a good player
“I think with a lot of big guys, sometimes they play the game because they’re big and it beats getting a real job,” he said. “But he really cares. It means a lot to him to be a good player.”
Len’s mentor Tyson Chandler agreed.
“He’s a sponge, he wants to be a great player,” Chandler said. “He’s continuing to grow. He’s very young as a big man. With a big man, it takes awhile for them to develop. He’s continuing.”
Chandler gets to the root of the problem, development. Len started a decade later than most NBA stars who were getting recruited to their first AAU team before they knew how to read the name on the front of the jersey.
European players typically make up that gap by going pro as teenagers. Len played just a season for BC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk before traveling 5,000 miles to begin his college career at the University of Maryland. He did so without expectations of achieving his NBA dreams he had so recently discovered.
“I had no idea (I could play in the league) when I was coming over here, I was just trying to go to college, get an education, just play American basketball, learn the language and learn the culture,” Len said.
Though the basketball portion of the move was always going to be easier, Len had issues on that front, too. He was suspended for 10 games his freshman year because of his brief stint as a pro. And there was the daily struggle to understand what his coach Mark Turgeon wanted out of him. Len spent six hours a day learning English, according to the Alex Prewitt then of the Washington Post.
It all added up to a freshman season during which Len averaged only six points and five rebounds a game. He was largely off of the radar for NBA teams.
And yet Len adjusted to life in America, picking up the language and new favorite foods like chicken wings and Chipotle.
“We don’t have Mexican over there (Ukraine),” he quipped.
The new diet combined with sophisticated weight training for the first time in his life led to a 30-pound weight gain between his freshman and sophomore year.
Len’s coming out party came in the second game of his sophomore season when he scored 23 points and took down 12 rebounds against the presumptive top pick in the NBA draft, Nerlens Noel of Kentucky, who had four points and nine rebounds in that game.
In a night, Len went from afterthought to a possible lottery pick.
“I was like, ‘oh damn, I guess I have a chance,’ ” Len said.
In what was regarded as a weak and uncertain draft, Len was projected as a possible No. 1 overall pick and ultimately went fifth to the Suns in the 2013 NBA draft.
Len appeared in just 42 games, playing just eight minutes a night as a rookie because of ankle and knee injuries. He progressed in 2014-2015, averaging a block and a half in just over 20 minutes a game while shooting better than 50 percent from the floor.
But Len took a step back last season. Despite averaging career highs in points, rebounds and minutes, Len’s efficiency and shot blocking dropped precipitously as he shot just 42 percent and saw his blocks cut by half.
So where does all that leave him? Len’s playing less than he has at any point since his rookie year on a team that has made developing its young players the priority.
Instead, the Suns used veteran Chandler much of the season in hopes of breaking a six-year playoff drought. That isn’t going to happen, and since the NBA All-Star break, Chandler hasn’t played a minute.
However, Alan Williams has claimed a significant slice of that center role, averaging 26 minutes in March compared to 19 for Len.
Still it’s worth comparing the three to see just how representative the current distribution of playing is of the Suns’ future plans.
Len is arguably the best rim protector of the three ranking 12th in the NBA in blocks per 36 minutes this season and 16th in rim protection based on opponent’s field goal percentage against him at the rim (Williams is slightly better, but doesn’t qualify based on minutes), according to NBA.com.
“Last year, they just wanted me to jump and contest the shots, I was like (expletive) that, I’m just going to block the shot,” Len said.
Offensively, Len is scoring at approximately the same rate he did last year while shooting a significantly more efficient 49 percent from the field. While that number doesn’t compare to Chandler’s lob-fueled 67 percent and slightly lags behind Williams’ 53 percent mark, Len remains the most versatile offensive threat of the three.
However, it is worth noting that four of the Suns’ top six rotation players have a higher shooting percentage when Chandler is on the floor than when Len is playing, according to NBA Wowy.
“Tyson, he’s more of a roller and when he rolls it gets more attention,” said forward Jared Dudley. “He’s a little bit more athletic than Alex, so when he rolls the weak side has to pull in and help.”
Which of course creates space the Suns’ gunners, in a way Len and Williams can’t.
Defensively, Chandler’s combination of savvy and nimble feet allows him to switch screens significantly easier than Len and Williams do.
With the Suns mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, Len has followed the example of his mentor Chandler and tried to do the same for rookie power forward Marquese Chriss.
“Me and Alex, we talk at practice, in the locker room, he’s like two lockers away from me,” Chriss said. “He’s like a big brother, but at the same time he’s like an older player on the team because he’s been there.
“He’s been through some things that I haven’t experienced. I just go to him for little things and I just talk to him.”
On some level, the 23-year-old Len still feels like a rookie himself.
The concern for the Suns is that he’s had four years in the NBA, they still don’t really know whether he is their future at center and have less than 20 games to figure it out.
“For Alex Len it’s just keep doing what you’re doing,” Dudley said. “He’s a 7-foot guy who can score on the block nice sometimes. He’s young, he’s going to get paid regardless of what happens. He could play no minutes. He’s still a big that can contribute in the NBA.”
In a league that’s increasingly moving towards small lineups and has a center market that’s already oversaturated, demand for a player with Len’s talents is significantly less than it would have been 10 years ago, but the Suns’ will likely have an offer to match.
“We don’t know his ceiling,” Dudley said. “He could still get better.”
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