Len eager to continue education with Suns


PHOENIX — The highest draft choice the Phoenix Suns have made since 1987 rolled into the day-after press conference at U.S. Airways Center wearing a walking boot and a polo shirt accessorized by the new franchise logo.

He handled questions regarding his transition from college basketball to the NBA. He provided a partial explanation for pedestrian productivity during this past season (“In college, spacing sucks”), and the recovery time associated with the stress fracture in his foot.

Alex Len also was asked to rewind the circumstances preceding the Suns selecting him fifth overall in the 2013 NBA Draft.

“I know this team has character,” he said. “I’m just glad to be part of it.”

His learning process for basketball ascension included paying attention to the work of Tim Duncan. As an aspiring post player, a kid certainly could do much worse. And for the widely reported gymnastics portion of his athletic maturation, the impressionable Ukrainian lad was inspired to tumbling action by none other than … Jackie Chan?

Well, the martial artist-turned-actor is quite an athlete, but it’s sort of nutty to imagine anyone converting a viewing of “Rush Hour 2” into motivation that helped facilitate a career in professional basketball.

But after three years of agility work on the mat, 11-year-old Olexiy Len unwittingly was prepared to be discovered by a basketball coach who just happened to show up at the gymnastics facility.

“He took me to the gym,” Len said during Friday’s meet and greet, “gave me a basketball and said, ‘Shoot it.’ I made it and he said, ‘You belong here.’

“I just fell in love with the game.”

Suns general manager Ryan McDonough spent about three years tracking Len to gyms around Europe and Tobacco Road — mostly as an employee of the Boston Celtics — before deciding the Maryland sophomore belonged in Phoenix.

With Nerlens Noel and Ben McLemore still on the board when the Suns made their selection, a noticeable portion of local hoops fans seem to disagree. But with a careful approach to franchise rebuilding, McDonough seems confident he has the right guy.

“I’ve been very impressed with his improvement,” McDonough said. “I think the sky’s the limit for this young man.”

For now, the limitation is the recovering foot, which will keep Len away from basketball-related activities until August. When his development reconvenes, the former gymnast — whose bounce and end-to-end speed put him on the NBA radar — will go down an improvement checklist that probably should feature refinement measures for back-to-the-basket performance.

According to analytics rebels around the Internet, Len turned a measly 38 percent of this type of post touches into baskets at Maryland. Since he was selected, Suns representatives haven’t exactly been shy about putting considerable blame on a Maryland system — with special focus on weak guard play — that created only eight shots and four free-throw attempts per game for Len.

Len was more diplomatic.

“Every time I got the ball, I was double-teamed,” he said. “My coaches wanted me to kick it out, so that’s what I did.”

When matched against top prospects such as Noel and Duke senior Mason Plumlee, however, Len responded with enough production and eye-popping mobility to rocket up draft lists.

But the legion of amateur and professional basketball experts — who aren’t as eager to stash blame for Len’s numbers elsewhere — have been critical of what is interpreted as Len’s inconsistent focus. If anywhere near accurate, that will have to change in the NBA, where every night is a battle against the world’s greatest oversized athletes.

With anticipated upgrades in player-development instruction within the Suns organization and practice challenges against incumbent center Marcin Gortat, Len’s opportunity to improve is before him.

A refresher course on the footwork and overall approach of San Antonio’s Duncan couldn’t hurt.

“He’s called The Big Fundamental,” Len said of the future Hall-of-Famer while recollecting his own days as an aspiring NBA player. “He doesn’t do anything crazy. He does small things and uses his body well.”

If Len becomes fluent in this less-is-more approach and takes the learning curve on two healthy wheels, patient Suns fans should be rewarded.

“I’m going to work hard and do whatever the coach asks me to do,” he said.

If he’s that coachable, let’s hope Jeff Hornacek simply asks Alex Len to dominate the paint every night.