This is a big summer for Alex Len, the former #5 overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. The Phoenix Suns say he was at the top of their Draft Board, and were lucky that he fell to #5 due to injury concerns and lack of production in college.
But there's never been a question of his talent, or his NBA frame. The former gymnast stands 7'1" with a 7'4" wingspan. He's got a great shooting motion, quick feet and a mean streak. If he can put everything together, watch out NBA.
Len is ready to participate in his first Summer League, beginning Saturday in Las Vegas, after missing last year due to the ankle surgeries.
"I told Alex this summer league is very big for him," Summer Suns coach Mike Longabardi said on Tuesday. "We all know that. I want him to be available so he's got to be durable so he can play. We want to keep him injury-free as best as possible."
With any player, the more healthy you are the more you can play the game of basketball.
"He's feeling more comfortable," Longabardi said of Len this summer. "He's playing a lot more free and easy, which is good. That's why summer league is so important. It's huge for him. If he gets to play, he can learn from his mistakes and hopefully not repeat them."
Could Alex Len and Miles Plumlee form a twin towers lineup for the Phoenix Suns? In this scenario, Len would be the "mini-stretch" power forward because he's got a very smooth 18-foot shooting stroke.
The Summer Suns, coached by Mike Longabardi, are going to try multiple lineups - some small, and some super-sized.
"We do have some versatility," Longabardi said of the Summer Suns roster. "We can play very big with Alex and Miles. We're going to play to our strengths as best we can."
With a point guard like Tyler Ennis, who is focused on finding the open man and running a clean offense, this super-sized front line could work very well.
But will Len be camping at the three-point line like his predecessor Channing Frye? No. If he does, he'll get pulled so quickly his head will spin.
Play to their strengths
"I just want them to play their game," Longabardi said of guys stepping out of their comfort zone to make an impression. "We don't need anybody to reinvent themselves. Everyone is here for a reason."
Just in case you wondered if the players heard Longabardi's mantra, here's Len 10 minutes prior when asked what Longabardi asked of him: "Just play your game. Don't be selfish and pass the ball."
Len's reason for being here is to be a big presence on the inside. He is already the Suns heaviest player, at 260 pounds with a 7'1" frame and a 7'4" wingspan. The 20 year old says he's added a good 10 pounds of muscle in the past two months, but we've heard that from countless players over the years. Get him on a basketball court nightly, and those extra pounds will shed like... well... the water weight that most of it is. Even then, 250 pounds is more than any other Suns player.
Yet Len has clearly been working on his body since the end of the season. While his waistline is still thin, his arms, chest and legs all looker thicker. He's definitely more buffed out than he was as a rookie, and those muscles won't fade away with exercise.
The kid will fill out in time. He's only going to turn 21 next month, so he's got a lot of "growing out" to do. By 23, I wouldn't be surprised to see him pushing 280 with good mobility.
Speaking of mobility...
"Yes, definitely," Len said of of his ankles being healthy right now. "I worked hard with the training staff and they got me healthy."
Coach Longabardi speaks with a bit more caution.
"We're going to be smart," he said of Len's minutes in SL. "What [Head Athletic Trainer Aaron Nelson] and [coach Jeff Hornacek] and Ryan [McDonough] feel is possible. This is big for him. We want him to develop. But we have back to backs. We have 3 straight days of two-a-days. We are going to be smart with that."
After spending an entire year rehabbing Len from ankle injuries, and now expecting those ankles to carry 260 pounds at NBA speed, the Suns are smart to be cautious. They want Len in incredible shape, so he's not hurting himself by making mistakes due to fatigue.
"The most important thing is conditioning for him," Longabardi said. "If he's in great shape, he's got to play and push through so he's not tired and make some silly mistakes whether its a foul or a turnover. That's big for him in summer league."
But clearly the Suns want Len to succeed and are doing everything they can to put him in that position.
"I am puling for him," Longabardi said. "I am one of his biggest fans. I want him to do really, really well. He does look good.
"He's put the time in with 'Nellie', 'Cowboy' all those guys in the Training Staff Mafia. And he's put his time here with [assistant coaches] Mark [West] and Kenny [Gattison]. And he wants to be good. Now we just got to make sure he's durable and he can sustain it. That's huge."
The Suns coaching staff has some specific expectations of Len this summer.
"Offensively, I want him to be efficient," Longabardi said. "I want him to take care of the ball, take great shots. Defensively, his communication has got to be great, he's got to play with multiple effort."
Some of those shots will be on the block, some as a cutter and some from the midrange area. Len also showed some really nice passing ability in preseason last year, so I'm sure the Suns would like to see him giving up a good shot to get an even better one with a cutter to the rim.
Len's assessment of his offensive expectations: "Pick and rolls, catch and finish, hit the open shot."
Defensively, when coaches talk about multiple effort with big men, they mean playing the whole 24 seconds of the shot clock. Many players are effective when their man has the ball, or when they are being attacked on the drive, but often just stand around when the action is not coming to them.
With Len, the Suns want him making multiple defensive efforts on the same possession. Attacking the ball handler on a pick and roll, and then adjusting back to your man, then adjusting when a player drives, and then again when the player dishes to another. Sometimes, there are three or four attacks on the basket in the same possession, and the Suns want Len active for all of them.
It's a lot to ask of a 20 year old, but this is the NBA. And Len has the athleticism and quickness to be that great defender.
Alex Len has the skillset, frame and athleticism to be a very good NBA center. Or, maybe even a LaMarcus Aldridge-type power forward. The NBA doesn't have a lot of 7'1" forwards out there, but Len could be an aberration due to his overall athleticism and mobility.
But for this upcoming season, let's just hope that Len stays healthy and progresses into a valuable role player off the bench as the backup center. He will only be 21 this season. Big men take a while to fully develop. If you put too much pressure on him to succeed too early, he might just fail.
"Development is important," Longabardi said of everyone on the team. "We want to make sure these guys are getting better and are ready to play come November. Thats what's most important."
So be easy on him, but don't be surprised if you see him in summer league and ask yourself, "Where was he last year?"