Former Maryland star Alex Len starting to contribute in Phoenix

January 24, 2014
COLLEGE PARK, MD - May 30: After two years playing basketball at the University of Maryland, Alex Len, a native of Ukraine, is getting ready to enter the NBA draft and go pro. Recovering from off-season surgery on his ankle, he takes a breather while working on upper body strength at the auxiliary gym in College Park, on Thursday morning, May 30, 2013 (Photo by Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post) It took a long time to get here. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)

PHOENIX – Phoenix Suns center Alex Len was simply trying to protect the rim. He didn’t intend to clobber Los Angeles Lakers guard Nick Young in the head, chop down on his shoulder and send Young sprawling on his backside. And the 7-foot-1, former Maryland standout definitely didn’t expect that Young would hop up ready to scrap.

Young shoved Len but before Len could charge back, official Kevin Cutler had already wrapped up Len and teammates Marcus and Markieff Morris were already shoving Young, who punched Suns guard Goran Dragic in anger.

“People were talking about it, but I didn’t mean to hit him,” Len said, when asked about the incident that has been replayed numerous times and resulted in his first career ejection for a flagrant foul penalty two. “But he had to do that. You can’t back down in this league. I respected what [Young] did. He didn’t back down. He didn’t show weakness.”

Len hasn’t played much during a rookie season that was interrupted by a left ankle injury, but he has quickly surmised that the NBA is not a place for those lacking physical or mental strength.

The 20-year-old Ukraine native has already had both tested, with a slow recovery on his surgically repaired ankles – especially the left ankle that was operated on in May – denting his confidence early in the season. And last Sunday, Denver Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler delivered a flagrant foul on Len and Len needed Leandro Barbosa to restrain him.

“You can’t back down from no one,” Len said. “Just got to play hard.”

That attitude has already helped endear Len to his teammates and coaches, who have been impressed with the hard work that he displayed while recovering from the nagging ankle problem. Len played five preseason games before developing soreness in the ankle, played the first two games before going down again. When he returned but developed more pain in late November, the Suns’ medical staff determined that he should rest and make it stronger before finally returning to action in January.

In addition to showing some spunk in confronting Chandler, Len also flashed the speed, agility and skill that prompted the Suns to select him fifth overall as he posted season-highs of nine points and six rebounds in 16 minutes in a 117-103 win over the Nuggets.

“It was good for my confidence,” Len said of the performance. “I show that that’s why they picked me. To contribute to the team. I’ve just got to keep getting better from this point on.”

Few members of the 2013 rookie class have made an immediate impact, but the Suns are pleased with Len’s progress. Len is averaging less than seven minutes a game but in an extremely small sample size, he is averaging an impressive 10.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocked shots per-36 minutes.

“I think he’s doing well. Obviously, his foot was a big issue,” Suns Coach Jeff Hornacek said. “Since he’s come back, you can tell he’s got the energy, he’s got a little more explosiveness and he’s playing well…He takes up a lot of space, he’s been doing a great job on the rebounding for us. When he’s in there this early, we don’t go to him a lot in the post but that will come as time goes on, but we just want him to go out there, give an effort, do the little things, the defense, the rebounding and the offense will come.”

Len has played sparingly in 13 games this season, with the Suns utilizing Channing Frye and Markieff Morris mostly at backup center. But the Suns anticipate that he will eventually bolster the front line with his ability to score in pick-and-pop situations, rebound and defend with his long wingspan. Len also embraced the Suns’ uptempo style – Phoenix ranks first in the NBA in fastbreak points (19.2 per game) and eighth in points per 100 possessions (106.1) – despite his size and past foot problems.

“I actually like that style,” Len said. “I can run. It actually makes it easier for me, just run the floor and we have a lot of guys like Goran [Dragic], Ish Smith, that can create shots for you, so you’ve just got to be right time right place.”

As he awaits an opportunity for more playing time, Len is patiently heeding the lessons from assistants Mark West and Kenny Gattison and teammates like Frye.

“The guys, they help me out a lot, Channing Frye always talks to me about what I need to do and he tells me to keep stuff basic, don’t do a lot of stuff and the offense will come to you,” Len said. “Every time coach put me in, I just try to play as hard as I can, get rebounds and just play defense.”

While admitting that the speed and physicality of the NBA game is much faster than college, Len said the adjustment hasn’t been too difficult. “I think the toughest part was mentally. I started feeling better and the confidence went up,” he said. “I think that was the biggest factor for me, to just get healthy and get stronger. I’m just happy to be playing now.”

Len remains in contact with his former teammates and coaches at Maryland. His conversations with Coach Mark Turgeon are centered mostly on the program and not how he is adjusting to the league. Len said he plans to pay a visit to College Park during the all-star break, since he won’t receive an invitation to the rookie challenge game with averages of 1.9 points and 2.4 rebounds. He is prepared to bring his winter gear, although he has gotten used to not needing extra warm clothing in Arizona.

“I love it,” Len said of the weather in Phoenix. “We just came from a trip to Chicago and Minnesota, it was like heaven and hell. It was really cold over there, it’s like heaven over here.”

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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