After a year of ankle problems and then a twice-broken finger that contributed to nary a completely healthy basketball game, Phoenix Suns 21-year old 7'1" center Alex Len delivered a game-changing performance on Friday night to remind people why he was chosen #5 overall in the 2013 Draft.
"I'm ready to help the team," Len said. "Once I contested a few shots [on Wednesday] I got more confidence and got my groove back. Being in shape definitely helps. This year I'm feeling good, I'm there on time."
Len played 31 minutes on Friday against the San Antonio Spurs, nine more than he had ever played in the NBA. In 42 games last year, his high was 21:59. In that game, a win against Milwaukee, Len scored 7 points and pulled down 10 rebounds.
Starting center Miles Plumlee got into foul trouble again, racking up 4 fouls in just 15 minutes of play. But the Suns did not miss a beat with Len on the floor as his replacement. Len's 11 rebounds were a career high as were his 10 points, all scored in the first half. Spurs center Tim Duncan put up 16 points - none in the fourth quarter - and pulled down 9 rebounds.
"Some great plays by the young kid, Alex Len," Duncan said after the game. "Good rebounds by him."
Len altered many more shots than he blocked (one), often forcing the Spurs to shoot floaters or dump off the ball to another player.
"He's long," coach Hornacek said after the game. "He makes guys adjust shots and they had to shoot over them. Boris (Diaw) got it over him a few times, but that's a pretty tough shot. It's the same thing they have with (Tim) Duncan. He's really long and we didn't make a lot of inside shots either. What, we were 27-for-46? You know when you miss 19 shots in the paint, there's a reason. A lot of it's Duncan and a lot of the reason they miss at the end is because of Alex."
Len had a very rough start to his career. First, he played the last half of his sophomore season at Maryland with a stress fracture in his ankle that required surgery and kept him out of pre-draft workouts. Still, he went #5 overall after many of the leading scouting websites had him potentially going #1 overall.
Len wasn't himself last season.
"Last year was probably the toughest year of my career," he said. "I wanted to get out there, but I couldn't, so I just had to work hard and I did the little things like stay in the weight room and work on other stuff."
Len was regularly lauded by the coaching staff as one of the hardest workers on the team. Fans just didn't get to see the real Alex Len in a game until Wednesday night, which was bettered on Friday.
He is just scratching the surface of his potential. Not only does he have the rim protecting instincts to make multiple contests on the same possession, he's got the feet to switch out on the perimeter in a pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop.
On the game's final play, Len switched out on Danny Green beyond the three point line to contest a potential game-tying shot. Len played Green so tight the Diaw never inbounded the ball and the Spurs were called for a turnover (5-second rule).
"It felt great," Len said after the win over the Spurs. "Just getting back out there, getting comfortable, and I got to give credit to my teammates. I mean they did a great job today and it was a great win for us. They're the world champions you know what I mean? It's definitely a huge win for us."
I'll leave you with a couple of GIFs of Len's best offensive plays of the night, courtesy of WichitaSunSteeler.
There's your Suns center of the future.