CHICAGO — Hobbling around on crutches at the Harrison Street Athletic Facility for the NBA draft combine, Alex Len spotted his name on a placard, maneuvered over to a folding chair and gently sat down. Len has gotten used to moving around with the assistance of walking aids in recent weeks, but he admits that the initial transition was a trying ordeal.
“I have blisters on both hands,” Len said, revealing the two dime-sized, prune-colored bruises on his palms.
The month since Len decided he was ready to leave Maryland after his sophomore season and enter the NBA draft hasn’t gone exactly the way the Ukrainian big man would’ve hoped. Two weeks after his announcement, the 7-foot Len discovered that what he thought was a sprained left ankle — or possibly bone spurs — was a partial stress fracture that required surgery and four to six months of recovery.
Len has heard that his draft stock has either remained unchanged or plummeted to the back end of the lottery because the injury has made him incapable of working out for teams. He probably will be able to walk unassisted around June 27 when Commissioner David Stern will step to a podium at Barclays Center and announce where Len’s NBA career will begin.
Despite the unforeseen setback, Len remains confident in his decision to have surgery — and his future prospects in the NBA.
“I think I have the biggest upside in this draft with the big guys,” said Len, still a few weeks shy of his 20th birthday. “I think, maybe 10 years from now, I’ll be the best player out of this draft.”
In a draft that NBA scouts and talent evaluators believe is fairly weak and short on immediate impact players, no consensus No. 1 overall choice has emerged, though Kentucky freshman center Nerlens Noel is the favorite despite the fact he had surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament last March and estimates that he won’t be ready to play until around Christmas. If the 6-11 Noel goes first, he would be the third Kentucky player to go No. 1 in the past four years — joining Washington Wizards point guard John Wall and big man Anthony Davis of New Orleans.
“I’m not surprised,” said Noel, 19, adding that he is ahead of schedule. “I have a God-given talent and I’m going to use it the best way I can. It would mean a lot to me. Definitely a dream come true if I get the opportunity.”
The Wizards have the eighth-best odds — a 3.5 percent chance — at winning Tuesday’s NBA draft lottery and will be looking to bolster their front line or add another perimeter scorer. They met with 15 players last week in Chicago, including Len, Indiana forward Cody Zeller, Gonzaga center Kelly Olynyk, Pittsburgh center Steven Adams, Duke center Mason Plumlee, Georgetown forward Otto Porter Jr., Ohio State forward Desean Thomas, Indiana swingman Victor Oladipo, UCLA forward Shabazz Muhammad, California guard Allen Crabbe, Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum and Murray State guard Isaiah Canaan.
Noel and Kansas guard Ben McLemore, another contender to go first overall, did not meet with Washington. UNLV forward Anthony Bennett, considered a top-five choice, did not attend the combine after having surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder.
Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said not knowing the draft position before the combine was unusual but didn’t dramatically alter their normal preparations.
“I don’t think we’re focusing on any one position. We’re going to see who’s out there,” Grunfeld said. “There are a lot of intriguing prospects, not only bigs but at every position, just like every year.”
Len said his meeting with the Wizards “went well” and he could possibly slide down to Washington if it is unable to move up in the draft. He averaged 11.9 points and 7.8 rebounds last season, playing the final two weeks of the season with a lower leg injury, and believes he showed enough in two seasons to warrant the investment of being selected high.
In Maryland’s season-opening loss to Kentucky, Len dominated his head-to-head duel with Noel by posting 23 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks while limiting Noel to just four points, nine rebounds and three blocks. Given all that he had to overcome his first year at Maryland — a massive language barrier that forced him to rely on gestures and facial expressions to communicate before he finally learned English and a 10-game suspension for violating NCAA amateurism guidelines — Len considers last season “kind of my freshman year in college.”
Len has already come a long way from when he started playing basketball at age 13 because a coach at school convinced him that a tall and lanky kid would have no future in gymnastics, his first sporting passion. He ditched the parallel bars, started dunking on rims and in a few weeks began making the game his career.
“I have a big upside and a good future and I'm really willing to learn,” Len said. “NBA been my dream since early age. I’ll glad to be here and also glad I got a chance to go to college in America. It helped me to adjust and learn the language. A lot of players that come over here, they have to go through the stuff I've already been through.”
Len will have to wait a few more months before he can contribute to his employer but he is willing to be patient. “I didn’t really have to do the surgery, but the doctor told me it was going to help me in the long run,” said Len, who had his cast and stitches removed last week. “I’m just trying to be proactive. Do the right things, be smart about it. When doctors tell me I’m ready to play, I will play. I want to have a long career in the NBA.”