Alex Len has been one of the most enigmatic players on the Phoenix Suns roster, if not one of the most enigmatic big men in the NBA as a whole.
Len possesses a truly unique combination of size, skill, agility, and upside. When he entered the 2013 NBA Draft as a 20 year old, 7' 1" 255 lb sophomore from the University of Maryland, originally from Ukraine, who had originally been a gymnast and only began playing at the age of 13, it was understood at the time that he was still fairly raw offensively and would need time to develop at the next level.
The Suns drafted the young prospect with the intention of doing just that, with hopes that in time, Len could become one of the rare, two-way big men with true center size.
However, the Suns were taking an additional gamble with Len, due to the fact that he had underwent a surgical procedure on his left ankle surgery to correct a stress fracture after the season at Maryland but prior to the NBA Draft combine. So not only was there a concern with the ankle itself, but he did not participate in any of the athletic drills and competitions, or team workouts to help the team gain further insight into his abilities and possible limitations.
But the Suns' medical team evaluated Len and felt confident that the ankle would not be an issue going forward, and the scouts decided that they had enough to go on, and they turned his name in to select with the fifth overall pick.
Shortly after, it was revealed that the Suns medical staff determined that it was necessary to perform an additional ankle surgery as a precautionary procedure to correct the beginning of a stress fracture on Len's right ankle as well.
Although Len was expected to be fully healed and recovered in time for the start of the 2013-14 season, he would miss valuable practice and experience playing in the NBA Summer League, and training camp as well.
Len did end up playing in the first two games of the season, but then sat the next seven in a row complaining of ankle soreness. This was something Len dealt with throughout the remainder of the season, and even when he was healthy toward the end of the season, he barely played due to the Suns' playoff chase.
In all, Alex played only 42 games and averaged just 8.6 minutes in each. His rookie season was spent mostly rehabbing his ankles rather than developing his game on the court.
The 2014-15 Season
Len mostly stayed in Phoenix during the offseason and was finally able to focus on strengthening his body and getting himself ready for the season to begin.
Alex was finally able to participate in the Suns' Summer League, and got off to a good start in his first game...until he broke his right pinky finger. Unfortunately, Len would miss the rest of the Summer League, but was expected to be ready to play in the preseason.
Another injury for Alex, but at least it wasn't his ankles.
Before the start of the preseason, on media day, when I saw Alex in person, it was evident that he was noticeably bigger. His listed weight was now 265 lbs. He had added at least 10 lbs of muscle compared to the prior season.
Len began training camp, right on schedule, and then it happened, again...Alex re-fractured his right picky finger during practice while playing in an intra-squad scrimmage. Len would miss all but the last two pre-season games, and was limited because of a splint on his right pinkie...but at least he was finally playing.
Alex Len began the season right on schedule, and almost immediately began to show significant signs of improvement. Len's first breakout happened in just the second game of the season against the San Antonio Spurs, where he recorded his first career double-double, scoring 10 points and grabbing 11 rebounds while helping the Suns beat their arch nemesis.
It was obvious that Len looked much more fluid and athletic than the previous year, and he credited it to being fully healthy for the first time without being limited by his ankles which had never fully recovered the season before.
Like all young players, Len had his ups and downs, but he played well enough to eventually take the starting position from Miles Plumlee in mid December.
Then it happened, just four games before the All-Star break, Alex Len came down awkwardly on his right ankle and limped off the floor. Luckily, it was confirmed to be just a sprain, and although he would miss the next three games before the break, he was ready to play 15 days later after the season commenced.
But Len sprained his ankle one again against the Brooklyn Nets, and had to miss another game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on March 7th. Then he sprained his right ankle for a third time against the Atlanta Hawks on March 15th and missed the next two games.
To make matters worse, once he returned, he suffered a broken nose on March 30th that would shut him down for the rest of the season.
Still, there were some significant strides made by Alex in his second season, and for that I give him...
Overall Grade for the 2014-15 Season: B+
The biggest concern right now is Len's health going forward. In the last two years, Len has had two ankle surgeries, three ankle sprains (plus soreness), two broken pinkies (same finger), and a broken nose.
That's quite the injury resume for such a young player who has only amassed a total of 111 games in the NBA. Of course, the good news is, none of the issues thus far have been directly related to anything chronic or debilitating in the long run, at least, not that we know of...but the term "injury prone" seems to be an adequate label to attach to him at this point, at the very least.
On the other hand, Len has begun to show the unique skill set and promise that the Suns saw in him when they decided the potential risk was worth the potential payoff.
As I mentioned above, it is rare to find a player with true center size who also has the mobility and skills that Len possesses. He is agile and athletic, and when he was completely healthy before the All-Star break, showed the ability to dunk everything near the basket on offense, and block everything in his 7' 3" reach on defense.
Here's a look at Len's overall stats comparing his progress from his rookie season last season to this one:
Of course, Len's minutes also increased, so you would expect his numbers to rise. But his productivity increased even on a Per-36 minute basis as well:
The advanced stats show the same trend almost across the board:
(All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference)
Looking at the stats, he was the only player on the roster this season who you can say, unequivocally, had a better season than last year. Even Archie Goodwin who scored a bit more saw a drop in efficiency. The Morris Twins may have scored more per game as well, but their per-36 numbers dropped, as did their FG%.
But Alex Len showed positive growth in nearly every aspect of his game, and the best the best news, is that he appears to have so much further to go.
If not for the injuries that limited his growth over the second half of the season, I would have probably given him an "A" overall. But, you have to take into account all of the injuries that have impacted not only him, but the team as well.
Still, he showed growth in nearly every area, took over the starting position, and played well on both ends of the court. For a second year player, he had a great season.
This is really the issue. Will Alex Len finally shake off the "injury prone" label by proving he can make it through an entire season without incident? If so, I'd say the future is very bright, and the Suns have their starting center position filled for the foreseeable future.
However, the injuries are a major concern. Some players just have bad luck in this regard, and can never seem to stay healthy long term. If Len proves to be a player who is constantly dealing with various injuries, not only will his progress continue to be stunted, but the Suns will have to accept that he can't always be depended upon to be healthy and available to play when needed.
If I had to choose the most likely scenario at this moment, I'm inclined to think that this is just a bad stretch of luck for Alex. There is nothing about his injuries that points to long-term issues (even his ankles are said to be structurally sound), and most of his setbacks have been more of a fluke than anything else.