Alex Len, Maryland’s 7-foot-1 freshman center, needed just 54 seconds to register the first dunk of his college career once cleared to compete Dec. 28, having served a 10-game suspension for violating NCAA amateurism rules.
And when ACC competition began, Len earned conference rookie of the week honors following his first career double-double (11 points, 12 rebounds) in Maryland’s Jan. 8 loss at North Carolina State.
But Len’s productivity and presence have dropped off markedly since.
After averaging 14 points and eight rebounds in his first three games (victories over Albany, Samford and Cornell), Maryland’s young center has been limited to 2.6 points and 4.3 rebounds on average in his past three outings (victories over Wake Forest and Georgia Tech and Tuesday’s 84-70 loss at Florida State).
“He came to play at North Carolina State,” Terrapins Coach Mark Turgeon said Friday. “He had high energy, was bouncing around and was aggressive. We haven’t really seen that kid since.”
If what’s ailing Len is a loss of confidence, Saturday’s game against Temple (12-5) may prove the antidote.
The perennial Atlantic 10 power lost Micheal Eric, a 6-11 power forward, to a knee injury earlier this season and has gotten by since on outstanding guard play, notably toppling Duke, 78-73. As a result, the Owls’ four-guard rotation will likely present a daunting challenge for Maryland back-court players Pe’Shon Howard, Terrell Stoglin, Sean Mosley and Nick Faust when the teams meet Saturday for an 11 a.m. game at Philadelphia’s storied Palestra. But Temple’s shorter lineup ought to create opportunities for Maryland’s big men — Len, chief among them — to dominate.
If, on the other hand, Len’s recent slump reflects an inability to stand up to the physicality of more muscular post players, Maryland (12-5) is likely in for a humbling stretch when it resumes ACC play Wednesday against No. 4 Duke and then on Feb. 4 against No. 8 North Carolina.
For a player his size, Len is surprisingly agile and skilled, clearly more a finesse player than a rim-patrolling enforcer. But Turgeon predicted weeks ago that the Ukrainian teen would struggle, at least initially, against the college game’s more physical post players. The forecast appears correct.
In Len’s 18 minutes against Florida State (his playing time was limited by two early fouls), he attempted just two shots and accounted for just four of the team’s 19 rebounds — as many rebounds as the 6-3 Howard.
After Albany fell to Maryland in Len’s impressive debut Dec. 28, Great Danes Coach Will Brown said: “I’d have [Len] live with the strength coach, give that strength coach a raise. But that kid’s going to be good. He might be a lottery pick one day with his frame and skill.”
But it will be this summer at the earliest before Len has a genuine opportunity to bulk up. That’s because athletic trainers focus on maintaining players’ weight and fitness during the season and reserve the summer months for adding heft and muscle, if warranted.
And it’s not so simple for exceedingly tall youngsters to bulk up, as the 6-10, 200-pound Berend Weijs can attest after dutifully increasing his caloric intake all summer with nominal effect. Moreover, it’s tricky for highly skilled basketball players to add appreciable bulk with losing a measure of speed or fluidity.
Regardless of Len’s brawn (or lack of it), Turgeon clearly would like to see him bring more attitude to the court and contest shots, contend for shots and box out like a more powerful player than he actually is.
In Turgeon’s view, a few factors are interfering with Len’s progression.
Among them: Maryland has faced tougher competition lately, which has been a particular challenge for Len, the coach said, because he missed the chance to play his way into “game shape” by being forced to sit out the first 10 games.
Moreover, Len, a native Russian speaker, is carrying a heavy academic load that, according to Turgeon, includes six hours of intensive English instruction each day.
“He has a lot on his plate besides getting ready to play college basketball,” Turgeon said. “But I think the kid has been remarkably good for what he has been through and had to go through.”