In the beginning, he communicated by computer. When Alex Len first arrived in the United States, Maryland’s Ukrainian center didn’t know any English. Conversations were aided by translation programs, to overcome the language barrier. Google was a first friend.
When Len sampled America’s finest cuisine (read: fast food), Terrapins forward John Auslander, his roommate, helped speak to the cashiers. The first time they dined together, Auslander ordered Len’s bagel. The 7-foot-1 center eventually graduated to pointing when they ate at Chipotle.
The first three months were the hardest, adjusting to an entirely new culture on an American college campus. But now, more than a year into his intercontinental journey, things are gradually becoming easier.
During a 15-minute interview Tuesday, Len demonstrated his new-found command of the English language. He’s bulked up, added confidence and power in the post. And after growing tired of chicken wings and Gatorade, he’s developed a penchant for Boston Market.
“I was grinding all summer, just spending a lot of time at the gym with my teammates, improving my game,”Len said. “My English, too.”
That elicited a smile from Auslander. Each morning, Len tweets “Rise&Grind” from his account, @AlexLen25, the phrase holding a special meaning for his progression as a college basketball player. Over the summer, Len put on between 20 to 25 pounds. Len estimates it’s 25. Coach Mark Turgeon says it’s more like 30.
Regardless of exact poundage, the size has allowed Len to add another element to his low-post game. Already a finesse player who had a team-high 47 blocks and averaged six points in 22 games last season, Len spent his summer pumping iron in the weight room.
“He’s so much further along, I can’t even explain it,” Turgeon said. “Last year, he would fight me. He’d rather be a finesse player than a power player. I know Alex is a finesse player. But I want him to be successful once he leaves Maryland, so he quit fighting me on that stuff.”
Turgeon said Len will receive some three-point looks this year, and the added strength allows him to catch entry passes deeper in the post. Each practice, Turgeon said, Shaquille Cleare, Charles Mitchell, James Padgett and Len, Maryland’s post players, “just beat on each other.” Of course, his defensive presence will still loom large.
“Alex is one of those shot-blockers who keeps the ball in play,” Turgeon said. “You can’t teach that.”
Learning to play physical took time. Len’s sporting career began as a gymnast because he loved Jackie Chan movies, which informs the cartwheel-dunk combo he executed during Maryland Madness last year. The way Len tells it, he was around 10 years old, at once the youngest and tallest child at his gym, when a high school basketball coach walked in and saw him. The coach grabbed Len’s hand, led him onto a court and thrust a ball into his hands. Len made the shot.
“You see?” Len remembers the coach saying. “You were born to play basketball.”
He grew up watching college hoops, including Maryland, and remembers Terps fans storming the court after beating Duke in 2010. “It was unbelievable,” Len said. He still didn’t know any English, but Maryland assistant coach Rob Ehsan spoke to him for 15 to 20 minutes on the phone almost every day, and sent him video packages about the Terps program.
Once Len signed with Maryland in August 2011, the NCAA reviewed his case and announced that he must miss 10 games, citing NCAA rules on amateurism. So Len, already at a cultural and lingual disadvantage, found himself on the sideline after coming to America to play basketball.
“You could tell he just wanted to be out with the guys, and it was killing him not to practice,” Auslander said. “Any chance he got he was on the court working out, lifting. I think it was tough for him.”
Then, in Len’s debut, he scored 14 points against Albany with a flourish of jump shots and one-handed slams. He earned ACC rookie of the week honors after his first career double-double against Georgia Tech, even though the language barrier took its toll on the court as well.
“I didn’t understand a lot of plays, when the point guard was calling the plays,” Len said. “I wasn’t getting it. It was really hard. I was really confused on the court when I caught the ball, I didn’t know what to do. Now I feel more comfortable.”
He still finds time to communicate with his family, a seven-hour time difference away in Ukraine, and gets recognized more on campus. These days, the 19-year-old can respond in English when fans ask for autographs. Turgeon says Len is accepting coaching better, and that his teammates are quickly learning to dump the ball to Len in the post and let the offense operate from there.
“There will be stages still,” Turgeon said. “He’ll improve a lot during the season as he goes.
“But when you see him for the first time, you’ll say, ‘Wow, he did grind it during the summer.’ ”