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Masked identity haunts Suns’ Alex Len in crucial season

Phoenix Suns center Alex Len, left, of Ukraine, shoots as Los Angeles Clippers forward Wesley Johnson defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Oct. 31, 2016, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Halloween passed him by.

Suns center Alex Len was busy taking part in the Suns’ 116-98 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, yes, but he probably couldn’t enjoy any sweet tweets as rival teams handed out king-sized deals to members of his 2013 NBA Draft class.

Len found himself locked into a restricted free agency this coming offseason as maybe more fourth-year pros than expected filled their pocketbooks with big guaranteed extensions Monday. Of eight members of Len’s draft class, big men Steven Adams (four years, $100 million), Rudy Gobert (four years, $102 million), Gorgui Dieng (four years, $64 million) and Cody Zeller (four years, $56 million) got deals done before the Oct. 31 deadline.

Only Zeller, the fourth overall pick, was off the board before the Suns drafted Len at No. 5.

Also with the arguable exception of Zeller, the other bigs that inked extensions have already helped front office projection-makers come to a conclusion.

Adams is already a physical backline defender who was a big reason the Thunder nearly made it to the 2016 NBA Finals. Gobert is a freak athlete, the length of which makes him the same. Dieng is a workhorse double-double threat with a burgeoning outside game, while Zeller has made strides physically as a 7-foot power forward with unique outside-in abilities.

Len, meanwhile, still hasn’t found his niche.

None of this is surprising.

“Obviously, he needs to become more efficient offensively,” Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said at Suns media day. “Defensively we like his mobility, his ability to guard smaller guys on the perimeter. He’s got to get better with verticality and not fouling on blocked shots. But you know, he has rebounded at a high level.”

The problem is that Len’s most productive skills — that rebounding and shot-blocking — have taken a backseat.

The beta-testing has reached a fourth year, and Len is still an inconsistent jump-shooter who hit 32 percent of two-pointers outside of the paint in 2015-16. He struggled last season by shooting 42 percent from the floor overall.

Part of it had to do with Len playing a lot as a power forward, and there is proof from a year prior, when he shot 51 percent, that he can recover from a poor shooting season.

“We asked him to do something he’d never done before, at 7-1, to play the 4 and play off the elbows a lot,” McDonough said. “With Tyson (Chandler) in there and without a high-level, healthy guard … the lane was pretty clogged. He didn’t get a lot of dunks and lobs and putbacks and easy buckets.”

McDonough, who will ultimately make the decision on Len’s future, admitted shot selection was a problem with Len. It’s confounding since the center has proven to have above-average passing skills. But too many times he gets tunnel vision — a post touch must lead to his own shot. McDonough also said his center needs to be more patient working on the elbows, where he’s effective making passes to cutters.

On Monday against the Clippers, Len entered in the first quarter only to brick a fadeaway jumper, then fail to take DeAndre Jordan’s position away under the basket as Los Angeles pushed the ball and picked up a foul as a result. After the inbound play, Len lost Jordan along the baseline, allowing a putback dunk.

Len would recover to score 13 points on 4-of-13 shooting and 5-of-8 accuracy from the foul stripe to go with five rebounds. A microcosm of his up-and-down nature, he sandwiched a badly bricked 19-footer and a 15-foot airball between a pretty double-pivot move off an entry pass right under the hoop.

As McDonough said in September, Len’s age puts him in a unique spot.

“There’s obviously some projection involved as well — it’s not just what they are now but what they’re going to become in the next four, five years,” the general manager said of Len and guard Archie Goodwin, before the Suns waived Goodwin.

Len would make all that projection easier on the Suns or whomever chases him in free agency if he used this season to finally carve out his niche.

Is he a dynamic, skilled 7-footer who finally starts knocking down those jumpers? Or will he forgo the idea of becoming a jump-shooting center and become a double-double threat and dependable defender at center, a role that, like Adams especially, goes overlooked but is always in high demand?

Len must help Phoenix reach that determination.

The Suns, for what it’s worth, can also help him come to the latter conclusion if they feel turning off his green light on offense will help him find his purpose.


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