Tyson Chandler sees Alex Len as a malleable student with the skills to be great.
But before getting impatient waiting for Len to put those skills together, maybe it’s important to remember what Len’s former teammate, Channing Frye, would first say when asked about the youngster.
“He’s tall as a Sequoia.”
Those are admittedly Frye’s words with one minor edit, but the brevity and point still stand very tall (see what I did there?).
Len’s physical abilities are what we should focus on when considering his role on this year’s team. He can defend and rebound, but he has a long way to go before he can become a significant offensive contributor.
Suns fans who understand patience see the third-year center as the 22-year-old he is. Like Chandler, they see the soft touch with both hands around the rim, the passing instincts and the silky (albeit flat) jumper. But what Len could help Phoenix with now is about his physical advantages rather than his skills unique for a big man.
Len’s 13-point, 14-rebound performance against the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday should be the tall expectation. The activity he displayed in that game is more important than the development of his 15-footer or ability to initiate the offense.
Defensively, the center ranks only behind teammate Sonny Weems in individual defensive rating while he’s on the floor. Teams score 99 points per 100 possessions when Len is playing. For contrast, opponents score 108 points per 100 possessions when forward Mirza Teletovic is on the floor.
Len has also improved his rebounding as he’s gained strength. Take this example from Tuesday, when he not only boxed out All-Star center Brook Lopez but shoved him aside to secure a board.
Many of Len’s rebounds in that game came after he helped on defense, forcing a guard or wing player to take a 15-footer rather than risk going at him in the paint. That is the greatest benefit of this still-growing version of Len.
The room for growth is on offense. While Teletovic makes up for his defensive limitations with his shooting ability — Phoenix scores 110 points per 100 possessions with Teletovic on the court — Len does the opposite. The defense-positive Len ranks second-worst on the Suns in offensive rating; the Suns only score 96 points per 100 possessions with him, making for a slightly negative net rating for Len.
What’s the problem with Len on offense?
For one, Len is far from a rim-roller like Chandler, who has been injured, thus leaving the starting center spot for Len to begin this current six-game road trip. Unlike Chandler, Len doesn’t take long strides to get to the rim, nor is he known for any explosiveness above it.
Jeff Hornacek said in the preseason the Suns were emphasizing that Len focus on catching passes off rolls not only at the cup, but above it. His athleticism may be limited to do that, but it’s clear he’s improving on the things he can control.
Taking the accuracy of player tracking statistics with a grain of salt, Len only has 22 possessions of rim rolls through 18 games played. He’s scored exactly 1.00 point per possession on such plays, which ranks him in the 47th percentile — or average. He gets fouled an impressive 27 percent of the time on rolls, shoots 53 percent in those situations — that’s 20 percent lower than Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson’s elite 73 percent — and turns the ball over 13.6 percent of the time.
Keep in mind that’s only out of 22 registered rolls, but the point here is that Len has struggled to either find himself in position to suck defenses into defending the hoop and when he does is a liability because he loses the ball. Thus, he’s failed to open room for Suns shooters when he rolls, which probably leads to the poor offensive rating.
One issue has been his inability to finish through defensive players slapping down on the ball. Here, Len is fouled but after catching a pass from Brandon Knight loses the ball because he brings it down. Luckily, he gets a call.
That’s a generously listed 5-foot-11 Shane Larkin ripping a 7-foot-1 Len.
Later in the game, Eric Bledsoe hits Len with a pocket pass, but similarly, the center is forced to load up with the ball below his waist.
It appears Bledsoe, with a split-second hesitation, could have found Len with a higher pass, closer to the rim. But it’s easier said than done, and Len’s lack of outright explosion heading to the rim may prevent that. His teammates haven’t tried much to throw him the ball high a la Chandler, and after all, they’ve gotten enough turnovers tossing sloppy passes to Chandler.
The good news for Len is that he’s shooting 4.7 free throws per 36 minutes, nearly doubling his attempts from the 2.5 per 36 minutes he took a year ago.
As he is, Len is still benefiting from pick-and-rolls when he can take one dribble and work himself into a short hook shot over a shorter defender, like he did here against the Raptors this week.
Len’s individual offensive skills can help him.
Yet, it’s not only about him finding confidence in his skillset. It’s about how the Suns decide to use him on a roster that’s right now built for other things. The offense hardly thrives on post passing and accentuates a more guard-oriented pick-and-roll attack that puts teams in binds with drives, rim-rolls and spot-up shooters — three categories Len does not fit into.
As it stands, watching Phoenix learn how to use Len within its offensive will be just as intriguing as witnessing how Len develops his unique offensive gifts.