Alex Len’s NBA draft stock soared so rapidly, the expectations mounting with each passing performance, that sometimes we forget just how far he came this offseason. Len morphed from a tentative beanpole into the assertive dunk monster showcased against Kentucky in the season opener. But since Christmas break, Len hasn’t seemed quite himself, even though he’s turned in solid numbers through two ACC games.
“Alex was really playing with toughness earlier in the year,” Coach Mark Turgeon said. “He’s not doing that quite as much now. He’s not shot-blocking and rebounding the way he was. He needs to do that for us. He’s still improved tremendously, and I think our expectations are pretty high for him, and they might be unfair, but he is better. He’s the focal point of everybody. When they come into prepare for us, they’re thinking about stopping Alex.”
Len earned his fourth double-double this season with a 15-point, 10-rebound effort against Florida State, but it still seemed that, at times, the 7-foot-1 sophomore got bullied around by the Seminoles’ more veteran post players, allowing smaller foes to deny post-entry passes by fronting or getting boxed straight out of the lane on rebounds.
“I like to say it was the competition the other night, the competition was pretty good,” Turgeon said. “They weren’t going to let Alex beat them. Still got 11 shots for Alex, tried to get him the ball, just weren’t as effective at getting him the ball as we have been. We’ll make some changes in the offense to hopefully rectify that.
“I think it was a combination of really good defense and what we were running the other night. Kept trying new things, make a few new tweaks. We were a real good offensive team until that game, you can say schedule or whatever, but we shared the ball and made shots. We just weren’t ourselves.”
One change that appears to have hit a speed bump was the starting of Shaquille Cleare. The center was expected to move Len away from the basket during the game’s opening minutes, affording Len more square-up opportunities and touches. But Cleare didn’t practice Saturday morning with lower back spasms before the Terrapins flew into Miami, a similar situation to when Jake Layman started over Nick Faust (upper back spasms) against Virginia Tech.
Expect Charles Mitchell or James Padgett to start in Cleare’s stead. Mitchell has received three consecutive starts at power forward, but Padgett has remained consistent and could be due for a return to the lineup.
Either way, if Turgeon does tweak the offense to favor Len, it’ll expand the spacing, giving Len more chances to display that feathery 18-foot jumper.
“Alex is a good shooter,” Turgeon said. “Hopefully, if they start playing together a lot, we can get Alex spacing the floor. We couldn’t space the floor the other night. They just didn’t guard Charles and didn’t guard James. I’m just trying to figure out how to space the floor a little bit better too, with a lot of the things I’m trying.”
Said Dez Wells: “Whether he’s under the basket or away from the basket, Alex is good enough to get the ball whenever he wants to. It’s about being aggressive, taking the ball strong to the basket. I have all confidence in him, regardless of where he catches the basketball or where he shoots it from. He’s been working on his game a lot. He’s worked on that, and has all confidence, the green light from me. I know Coach is confident in him too. Where he catches the ball is where he can score.”
>> Some quick quote dumps for your enjoyment.
Turgeon, on expectations: “I don’t expect us just to be great just because we lost a game. I still expect us to be a young team that’s trying to get better. I think the league’s better than everybody thinks, to be quite honest with you. Just got off the phone with Coach [Roy] Williams at Carolina. They’re still not the same team obviously but they’re good. Miami’s arguably better, playing that way, Florida State has a chance to be really good. It’s a tough league. There’s going to be growing pains. We have six new guys in the rotation. That’s tough.”
Dez Wells, on slightly higher expectations: “I feel like we have a really good chance of winning the ACC championship and the regular season title, but we have to come out ready to play.”
>> Sunday’s game at Miami will be somewhat of a homecoming for Wells, who will have all manner of relatives in the Coral Gables stands. His mother’s family is from Miami.
>> Was hoping to catch a glimpse of The_Franchyze down in South Beach, but the former Terps defensive lineman is in St. Petersburg, practicing for the East-West Shrine Game, where he will play alongside Joe Vellano and 13 other ACC players on Jan. 19 at Tropicana Field.