Alex Len simplified his game in take two of his contract year for Suns
PHOENIX — How long is too long to give up on the potential of a player selected with a high lottery draft pick?
That’s the question the Phoenix Suns had to ask themselves with 2013 No. 5 selection Alex Len last offseason when he entered restricted free agency.
Len was coming off a terrible 2016-17 season. He was severely outplayed by Alan Williams, who went from occupying the end of the bench to earning more playing time than Len.
Turns out, the Suns didn’t have to answer the question of when to give up on Len — yet.
As a restricted free agent, Len could sign a multi-year deal with Phoenix or another team, or accept a qualifying offer with the Suns that would give him a one-year deal to remain with the team that drafted him. In the worst-case scenario for Len and his team, attractive multi-year offers didn’t come. He took the qualifying offer and, essentially, a re-do of his contract year.
At Media Day in late September, Len spoke like a fifth-year player who understood what he had to do to become a successful NBA center.
He had to abandon the complex elements of his player archetype as a center that made him a top-5 pick and, instead, simplify his game by focusing on three things: Finishing around the rim, rebounding and protecting the rim.
No more mid-range jumpers. No more high post looks. No more post-ups.
“Not doing too much, don’t learn too many different moves, just stick to simple stuff,” Len said at Media Day.
“Just get good at it, not just work on a lot of things, just work on a few things but getting really good at it.”
Len has done just that, in theory, at least.
Compared to his big men peers, Len’s highest percentile of shots taken at the rim prior to this season was 69 in the 2014-15 season. He attempted 63 percent of his shots at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass, while mixing in some midrange jumpers and even the occasional 3-pointer.
Now, he’s taking 85 percent of his shots at the rim, a drastic jump that puts him in the 93rd percentile among bigs.
His highest percentage of shots taken from the mid-range area was 45 in the 2015-16 season, and now he’s down to 15 percent this year.
Unfortunately, his struggles as a finisher are still there are as a 24-year-old.
While his efficiency around the rim has always been poor, he’s shooting a career-low 55 percent at the rim, in the 13th percentile of bigs, per Cleaning the Glass. That is a horrendous number for a 7-foot-plus traditional center.
The improvement isn’t there from an efficiency standpoint, but it is as a rebounder.
He’s rebounding 12.7 percent of his team’s misses as an offensive rebounder, a number he couldn’t crack double digits for in the last three seasons. That percentage as a defensive rebounder is also at a career-high, 24.1 percent.
His overall rebounding percentage of 21.1 is the best of any player getting at least 20 minutes per game and consistently coming off the bench, per NBA.com.
As for the third category, his rim protection has also improved.
Among players who have played in at least 15 games and defended at least four shots at the rim per game, Len ranks 10th in defensive field goal percentage at 54.1 percent, over 6 percent better than Tyson Chandler, per NBA.com.
The question surrounding Len’s improvement from last year to this year, though, is why does it matter?
At the end of the day, Len is still not as good of a player as Williams was last year. That’s a fact. Williams, who has sat out all season with a knee injury, is a far superior offensive player and held his own defensively while being a very productive rebounder.
Len is still an awful finisher around the rim with bad hands, making him a limited offensive player. Defensively, he’s been a great rebounder and good at protecting the rim. But is that enough?
Now, Williams can make as good of a case as Len does when it comes to being the Suns’ center of the future. Simply put, that player is not on the roster at this point.
Williams makes just over $5.5 million through 2020, a more than fair price for a backup center.
If the Suns were to re-sign Len, that’d leave them with Tyson Chandler, Len and Williams at center without that aforementioned long-term piece at center.
Even trading Chandler leaves the position in dire straits as the clock continues to tick onward in the playoff drought.
Essentially, what the Suns are asking themselves this offseason is if they are ready to commit to a limited defensive center at the position.
The decision will be greatly impacted by the upcoming NBA Draft that could include bigs Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Mohamed Bamba and Jaren Jackson Jr. as potential top-5 picks. Others like Robert Williams, Wendell Carter and Mitchell Robinson are also likely to go in the lottery if they enter the draft.
If the Suns were to take one of those players with either their own first-round pick or the Miami Heat’s, they’d be overstocked at center and would be forced to let Len walk.
Maybe that’s what’s best for both sides.