The Phoenix Suns stunned many analysts when, with the 5th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, they took injured center Alex Len over injured center/forward Nerlens Noel and outside shooter Ben McLemore.
Noel had been the consensus #1 or #2 overall mock-picked until the final weeks before the draft when Noel, and Ben McLemore as well, began dropping down teams' big boards due to concerns over health and dedication, respectively.
Meanwhile, injured Maryland center Alex Len - who had not even made his all-conference team in either his freshman or sophomore season - rose up the boards steadily. By the eve of the draft, the most widely respected NBA draft site (draftexpress.com) had Len going #1 overall to Cleveland.
But all three players were passed over in the first four picks in favor of Anthony Bennett, Victor Oladipo, Otto Porter and Cody Zeller.
When the Suns came up on the board for the 5th overall pick, they still had their choice of the consensus two most talented players - Noel and McLemore - and the late riser whose measurables were perfect but his production was iffy. And, he was injured.
The Suns took Len.
"If Len's not on the board then you look at those guys," General Manager Ryan McDonough said of picking Len over Noel and McLemore. "But he's a guy that can be a game-changer down the road and it's a situation where when we all looked at the guys and ranked them he was the consensus by all of our guys that he's got the biggest upside, at that size, and his skill level. And so I think you take the best player available at that time. Is it the best for tomorrow? Maybe even still then he's the best for tomorrow. We just think that as we go through this rebuilding process with our guys, some of the guys we have on the team, he helps us get there maybe a little quicker."
The Suns trainers and doctors felt that Len had a healthier future ahead of him in the NBA than did Noel. They didn't like his knee injury, and the lack of thickness in the lower body left teams to wonder if Noel would ever be able to handle the NBA pounding.
But it wasn't just health that had the Suns taking Len over Noel.
"I think all around skill," said coach Hornacek of taking Len over Noel. "Is he as good of a shot-blocker as Noel? Maybe not, but he is still long and he can block shots. Then he had the offensive game. When you can get a guy - again, I'll keep going back to this - you get a guy that's 7-1 that can do things defensively and block shots, take up space, with the wingspan and he's got a good offensive game; you can use him to pass, you can use him to score; that's something you don't see very often at both sides of the game. That's what we felt was really exciting about the guy: he's not just one-dimensional."
Eighteen months later, both players are healthy and playing important minutes at center for their teams.
Nerlens Noel is getting 28 minutes per night for the 0-11 Sixers as they continue their mockery of the NBA competitive spirit in the hopes that one day they can completely turn around the franchise. Noel has started 6 of 9 games he's appeared in. He missed two for various nicks that were not serious.
Alex Len has played in all 12 Suns games, but has not started. He's getting 22 minutes per game and showing that all-around skill that the Suns drafted 18 months ago.
See where Len and Noel rank this young season, in order of Win Shares, among first and second year big men (guys 6'10" or taller who play forward or center exclusively).
Len has had the most positive impact, in terms of Win Shares, on his team in this young season. Sure, the season is only 12 games old (10 or 11 for some other guys), so the list will change but it's a huge relief for the Suns and their fans that Len is making such a difference on a winning team.
In terms of minutes, points, rebounds and blocks, Len drops into 6th or 7th place, but that's a function of minutes. The other guys at the top of the list are getting more burn.
These two players will forever be linked, for Suns fans. Who ends up with the best career will be an ultimate indictment on the GM Ryan McDonough.
So far, McD's decision looks to be a good one.
Watch the Suns take on the Sixers on Friday night in Philadelphia. The only other time these two faced off, Alex Len got the better of Noel when they were 19 and 18 years old, respectively. Len was entering his sophomore season at Maryland while Noel was in his first college games as a freshman at Kentucky.
Interested in playing Daily Fantasy Basketball with the chance to win money? Sign up for FanDuel here! You can put Noel against Len yourself and potentially take home some money!