Maryland's Alex Len fitting in well for Terps

Maryland's Alex Len fitting in well for Terps

Published Jan. 10, 2012 7:29 a.m. ET

Watch Alex Len run up and down a basketball court and his athletic ability is pretty obvious.

The Maryland freshman’s footwork and balance are impressive when he moves from setting one screen to another. When he goes for rebounds, often out-stretching anyone else around the rim, comes down with the ball and correctly makes an outlet pass, it’s clear the young man has already learned to combine skills and fundamentals with his God-given attributes.

And when he catches a pass and in one lightning-quick motion turns and flushes the ball through the cylinder, it’s clear that Len has an impressive future in the sport, provided he keeps working on his game.

Len is a 7-foot-1 freshman from the Ukraine, so his game is a bit raw and also in the transitional stage from the European style to the American college way. Although he’s played just four games, rave reviews are pouring in, especially from those who have competed against him.

“I love him, he’s going to be really good; he’s going to be a great player,” said N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried, whose team beat the Terrapins in Raleigh, N.C., on Sunday night. “To get a guy like that in the midst of a coaching change, whew, that’s a heck of a get for them right here at this time. He’s got a chance to become a great player.”

Len finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds against the Wolfpack, which was his first game against a high-major college team. N.C. State boasts one of the ACC’s most physical front lines, with three bigs it ran into Len, but the 18-year-old handled it pretty well.

It helped in some respects that Maryland coach Mark Turgeon had Len screening for much of the night, at times almost too often. He set seven screens on one possession in the first half. But it’s helping improve his footwork, adapt to the flow of the college game and figure out how to move without the ball while avoiding the perimeter.

Like so many European players, Len is comfortable away from the basket, but his gifts suggest he can develop into a dominant force in the lower blocks, he just has to give it time. The folks at Maryland hope Len does that, because it means he will stick around College Park for at least one more year.

Although not at all polished and with limited experience, Len is considered a future lottery pick when he comes out, given he smoothes out some rough edges, and the best place for that is in college. Len already maxed out his development in the Ukraine, where he averaged 16 points, 11.4 rebounds and 4.3 blocks in the Under-18 European Championships last season.

According to, Len is currently rated the No. 7 overall European prospect and the No. 2 European center for the 2012 NBA draft.

Len doesn’t speak English very well, and Turgeon doesn’t want him answering questions about the draft, so Len hasn’t been available to the media yet. But the coach, while trying to avoid speaking about him as well, offers a frank and promising take on his budding star.

“He gets rebounds over guys… and finishes just because of his enormous size and length,” said Turgeon, who noted the other day he’s surprised by Len’s production of nearly 14 points and 8 rebounds per contest thus far. “I think he has a feel for the game…

“He’s still going to be an 18-year-old kid, but I think you’ll see tremendous improvement as the year goes forward.”

Gottfried was about to close his postgame press conference Sunday night when asked about Len. The gushing continued.

“You have to remember for him, this is just his fourth game, wow,” the coach said, shaking his head. “And when you’re a freshman and you don’t get November and December that’s hard, that’s really hard for him. This was his fourth game and he’s playing in this environment in an ACC game. You’d like to play six or seven against some teams that aren’t nearly as good, but he doesn’t have that luxury. But he’s still going to be good.”

Len still must get used to American rules. He’s been whistled for goaltending on both the offensive and defensive baskets. On Sunday, he grabbed two defensive rebounds late in the contest in which the balls had literally just come off the rim.  

But his nice hands grabbed the ball like a cobra snatches its prey, an attribute that will only improve as the 225-pounder adds muscle.

“He’s really big and he moves well and he’s pretty quick,” said N.C. State junior forward Richard Howell. “I think he’s going to be a really good player.”

Len missed the first 10 games of the season because he had signed with an international club team. But now he’s in the starting lineup and could be the difference in Maryland experiencing one of its worst seasons to instead developing into an NCAA Tournament team.

If that happens and Len’s game grows as expected, keeping him in college might be Turgeon’s greatest challenge.