Anyone who has determined that Maryland big man Alex Len was more hoopla than hoops a season ago and has low expectations may want to quickly re-evaluate. He could be on the brink of exploding.
The 7-foot-2 Ukrainian is light years ahead of where he was this time last November. His coach, Mark Turgeon, says Len is a “completely different player.”
Len is a different person, too.
Hamstrung by not being able to participate in team activities through the first 10 games of last season — courtesy of an NCAA ruling regarding his relationship with a pro team in the Ukraine — Len finally got on the court only weeks before ACC play began.
He struggled with the physical nature of the American game, but had greater issues simply trying to communicate. One can only imagine being 18 years old, in a strange land with a vastly different culture, and for some reason 17,000 screaming people watch your team play every night. Furthermore, unable to speak basic English made life in College Park a lonely, isolated existence for Len.
“There were a lot of things,” Turgeon said. “One, he didn’t understand half the things we were saying. Two, he was nervous. All of this was new to him and he was a little overwhelmed. He was much better at home, and especially on the road you really can’t get nervous.
“And, we just weren’t a very good basketball team (17-15) last year, so there wasn’t really any consistency to what we were doing as a team.”
A full offseason of conditioning and learning the language should do Len wonders. When Len doesn’t understand something now all he has to do is ask. It wasn’t so simple last winter.
“He would put his head down and was too shy to say he didn’t understand something,” Turgeon explained.
At times, he didn’t know what play the Terrapins were running and tried to figure it out by watching. That’s one reason Turgeon thinks Len was better on defense than offense because he could rely more on his instincts and reactionary skills.
“I think it’s that he’s just a very shy kid. ‘I don’t know, I’m not going to ask’ type deal. He definitely knows the language now. We try to have conversations. … He can actually have conversations now.”
Breaking down the language barrier has opened up a new universe to Len. He can order his own food at restaurants. Chicken wings just about anywhere were an early favorite along with Chipotle, but lately he’s really been into Boston Market. He likes full, ready-made meals.
He relates more with teammates, too. Not only can they learn about each other on more personal levels, Len’s once-squashed sense of humor and personality surface more as each week passes.
Len even recently show-boated in practice after draining a 3-pointer, prompting Turgeon to ask himself, “Who is that kid?”
A native of Antratsit, Ukraine, which is a 7-hour time difference from College Park, Md., Len didn’t begin playing basketball until he was 10. He was a gymnast first because he loved Jackie Chan movies. Len can even do a full cartwheel. And while adapting to the culture at Maryland was a challenge, Len was actually familiar with the Terrapins before the program contacted him.
He watched a lot of college basketball back home and remembers seeing Terps’ fans storm the floor after beating Duke a few years ago.
Now he has a chance to personally experience thrilling Maryland victories. The Terps should be an NCAA Tournament team this season and Len should be one of, if not the key component to their success. His modest averages of 6 points and 5.4 rebounds per game from a year ago should be doubled, at least.
Len, who put on 30 pounds in the offseason, has natural instincts for the game. He should blossom now that he won’t need to think through every moment and will always know what directives are coming from the bench.
“He’s a lot better, he’s a lot better,” Turgeon said. “He’s worked hard. He’s a (basketball) junkie. Works hard in the weight room, he has confidence, he knows the language. He’s completely different, much more physical. Things have slowed down for him. He’s really night and day.”
Sophomore guard Nick Faust anticipates big things from his Ukrainian friend.
“Alex, he has really gotten a lot better,” Faust said. “Having a full off season and preseason to work out and to prepare for games has been really big for him. He’s has made huge improvements. He can be a great, great player for us.”
Relaxed, having fun and aware of his surroundings and what’s being said are just part of what makes up the new and improved Alex Len.
The rest can be seen on an ACC basketball court near you this winter.