Alex Len developing into a big part of Suns’ rising fortunes
PHOENIX — In a league defined by maneuvers that synthesize skill, grace and explosive power, it didn’t exactly register on the mind-blowing scale.
But in terms of measuring the development of a certain 7-foot-1 center and his potential for impacting the long-term fortunes of the Phoenix Suns, you can bet Jeff Hornacek and Ryan McDonough noticed.
This moment of significance was authored by second-year center Alex Len, and the victim was Memphis counterpart Marc Gasol, whose diversified NBA chops include the title "Defensive Player of the Year."
Let’s recount: Len received an entry pass on the mid-post, turned to face the Memphis Grizzlies center, rocked him with a reasonable interpretation of an inside-out dribble move, accelerated past Gasol to the baseline and converted a reverse layup.
You could almost feel a minor shift in the tectonic plates supporting Phoenix’s basketball future.
Although the 22-year-old’s defensive contributions have inspired optimism, this caliber of offensive skill suggests so much more to come.
Among the witnesses to Len’s evolution is Suns coach Hornacek, whose team has won 11 of the 16 games contested since Len entered the starting lineup.
"Alex takes a new step every game, it looks like," Hornacek said. "He’s getting better with the things he does."
And those things are adding up as evidence that all that’s required for the Suns to finally identify an elite inside force is to sit back and watch the player they have now develop.
The evidence isn’t exactly overwhelming yet. But since joining the Suns’ perimeter-oriented starters, he has provided 8 points, 7.8 rebounds and more than 2 blocks per game. He’s making 58 percent of his shots from the field — including a few as a mid-range weapon — and providing a level of rim protection that allows Hornacek to deploy a lineup that’s heavy in relative midgets.
Among Len’s notable contributions was a 17-point, 7-rebound performance in a win over the Dallas Mavericks. He had 10 and 11 (with five blocks) against Sacramento, and 14 and 13 vs. Gasol in Memphis. In Tuesday’s triumph over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Len provided 13 points and 10 rebounds. He also had at least five blocks on three other occasions during this starting stretch.
For someone whose injury issues as a rookie made his status as a high lottery pick in 2013 seem more than iffy, the uprising is welcomed.
For Len, it’s little more than the result of embracing a process of daily progress.
"It’s confidence and my playing time going up," Len said when asked to explain the improvement. "I’m just getting comfortable out there, just trying to learn game to game and get better.
One of the architects of Len’s betterment is assistant coach Mark West, who — along with assistant Kenny Gattison — applies practical experience as a former NBA post player into teaching the tricks required for thriving around the rim.
To West, Len’s improvement is a simple transition.
"He started out as a very talented basketball player," West said of the kid who left Maryland after his sophomore season. "But he had issues with being healthy . . . no summer league the past couple of years.
"I think he’s been diligent putting in the work, and it’s starting to show."
But aside from being very large and skilled, the potential to become much better owes a lot to Len’s ability to think the game.
Spending two seasons at Maryland after leaving the Ukraine assisted Len’s social assimilation as a professional athlete in the United States. His introspection and commitment to learning also contribute to what seems like an accelerated pace of development.
When not watching basketball video featuring stars such as Tim Duncan, Alex includes other areas of film study in his attempt to improve in all areas of life.
"I watch a lot of documentaries," Len said. "You can learn something from documentaries; I try to learn something different every day."
Intelligence and a desire to keeping adding to the mental portfolio certainly can make teaching easier.
"He’s a very smart basketball player," West said. "That was one of the reasons we chose him. And he’s just continued to grow and getting that confidence through experience; that makes a big difference."
With so many ball-dominant players on the floor in Suns uniforms, Len’s march to the destination of impact center on both ends might not seem as rapid as some observers would prefer. But on a team possessed of considerable firepower, his improvement as a defender has been crucial.
The importance of shot blocking and securing defensive rebounds is obvious; his role of help defender and back-line cop is just beginning to emerge.
"Well, just like the rest of our guys; we don’t talk a lot," Hornacek said when asked about Len as a communicator on defense. "Alex is not bad at it, but again, all our guys need to get better at communication and helping to direct traffic. You know — when a guy’ cutting behind, we alert the guys that something’s going on.
"We’ve got a bunch of quiet guys, for the most part, but I think Alex is a guy who can get there. I think right now, this is really his first year playing, and he’s trying to find his own way. We don’t want to put too much on him to try to direct everybody else when he’s just starting himself."
OK, so he’s not going to be the next Kevin Garnett any time soon. But even during the season, greater attention to detail can help make Len even noisier in statistical categories that feature defense. Currently fifth among NBA players in block percentage, his overall defensive awareness also has continued to climb.
"He’s starting to recognize some different sets and what’s going to happen," West said. "You almost see the plays developing. A lot of that is just from being a more experienced player.
"As a shot blocker, he’s still improving there, too. It’s blocking shots with your left and right hand and going straight up. Get to the point where you’re not just slapping it, but blocking it to control the ball. He’s starting to do it; now it’s more about being consistent."
Once consistency is achieved and Len rises to meet his prescribed ceiling, will the Suns have a player capable of joining the many top-flight centers in the Western Conference?
"I think so," West said, "but that’s a tough task . . . there’s some very good centers.
"He works extremely hard on the floor, in the weight room and studying the game. It’s all coming to fruition now coming to bear in games. He still has a long way to go. I think he’s going to be a very good player all around. He can shoot, he can play in the post . . . he can even put it on the floor a little bit."
And as our main witness to that latter skill, we have Marc Gasol.