After watching, waiting and recovering from ankle surgery, Suns' young center is determined to put lessons into practice in second NBA season.
In 42 games during his rookie season with the Suns, Alex Len averaged 2.0 points and 2.4 rebounds.
Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today Sports
By Randy Hill
PHOENIX -- When contemplating the underrated art of mimicry, we could do a lot worse than solicit input from a wide-eyed kid.
The gift of imitation rarely is wasted on the young.
In Alex Len, the Suns have a youngster who now is attempting to replicate the maneuvers he studied while sitting on the bench during his rookie season.
And even though the Suns would have preferred to have the fifth overall selection in the 2013 NBA Draft gain wisdom through practical experience, we're pretty certain the 7-foot-1 center spent his down time wisely.
But the lessons didn't end when Phoenix's playoff bid fell short.
"I watched The Finals," said Len, now 21 years old, after a group of young Suns bound for the Las Vegas Summer League had their first official workout on the practice court at U.S. Airways Center on Tuesday. "The Spurs . . . all of the bigs could pass. That's important."
Yeah, sharing the ball seemed to work pretty well for San Antonio.
So, when asked for a point of emphasis going into his first extended, on-court work as a professional, Len -- who made cameos in 42 regular-season games following surgery on both ankles -- said his immediate goal was to become more of a facilitator.
"Just making more plays," he said. "Being a better playmaker, making passes instead of just posting up with my back to the basket."
The Suns probably wouldn't mind if the former Maryland standout just posted up and became a serious scoring threat. But they also probably don't mind this magnanimous attitude, either.
Simply having him healthy and on the floor seems like a triumph.
For expert testimony, let's go with Mike Longabardi, the Phoenix assistant coach who's been assigned the duties of head coach for the Summer Suns.
"He does look good," Longabardi said. "He's put in time with all those guys in the training-staff mafia. He wants to be good. Now, we've just got to make sure he's durable and can sustain it."
To that end, Len has supplemented his work on basketball-related moves with agility drills and a strength-training regimen that has helped him add 10 pounds of good weight.
Len, who said both ankles are ready for action, could -- if the potential the Suns see in him begins to be realized -- provide Phoenix with that little extra inside power needed to nail down a playoff seed.
But instead of feeling the weight of an obvious burden associated with being taken so early in the draft, Len considers his rookie season as time well spent.
"I don't regret it, I would have lost that entire year of developing," Len said when asked about leaving Maryland following his sophomore season.
And he did need surgery before even suiting up as a pro.
"I could watch and learn," he said of being a pro. "And I did get to play a little against NBA guys. It was a big experience for me."
In a few days, that practical experience will be ratcheted up in Las Vegas.
"There's no substitute for playing," Longabardi said. "That's why this summer league is huge for him.
"I told Alex this summer league's very big for him. We all know that."
Although the learn-by-doing approach now applies, the Suns aren't going to load Len down with excessive minutes.
"We want to keep him injury free . . . as best as possible," Longabardi said.
In terms of on-court emphasis from the team's perspective, Longabardi was pretty specific.
"Offensively, I want him to be efficient," the coach said. "I want him to take care of the ball, take great shots."
Perhaps transforming himself into the second coming of pass-happy Boris Diaw will have to wait.
But Len's overall growth as a two-way player could help define how good the Suns can be in the next few seasons.
"Defensively, his communication's gotta be great," Longabardi said. "He's gotta play with multiple effort. The most important thing is conditioning for him so, if he's in shape, he won't make the kind of silly mistakes you make by being tired."
For Len, the mechanics of defense made the rookie learning curve that much more treacherous.
"The hardest part was defense," he said. "In the NBA, it's a lot different with the three-second rule and stuff like that defensively. I had some problems learning that."
Being unable to play extended minutes made the defensive transition even more difficult. But with the summer league's practical classroom looming ahead, the Suns should begin to see Len's promise begin to unfold.
"He's feeling more comfortable, which is important," Longabardi said. "He's playing a lot more free and easy. I'm pullin' for him; I'm one of his biggest fans."