What exactly do the Phoenix Suns have in Alex Len? And, should they develop Len over other options this summer?
When the Suns drafted Len last year at #5 overall, he became their highest pick since the late 80s. Will he ever live up to that lofty standard? Or will other centers overshadow him his whole career?
He's played two seasons now, though his rookie year could really be considered a wash with the foot rehab. This year, his second in the NBA, was much better. He started most of the Suns games and even went through a period where he was a double-double threat on many nights.
He got this great double-double against the vaunted Grizzlies.
Len (likely) finishes the year with 10 double-doubles (10+ points, 10+ rebounds in the same game), second on the team to Markieff Morris' 11 such games. Three of those double-doubles were prior to joining the starting unit when he played behind Miles Plumlee (who had just one double-double this year after having 11 such games last year), with seven coming in the 44 starts Len made against the other team's best big man.
Youth and inexperience
When factoring in Len's age (21 all season) and inexperience (second year in NBA) he profiles very well compared to his peers.
Among all centers and forward-centers in their first or second years of their careers in the last two seasons, looking at single seasons, Len's 2014-15 season ranks 6th in blocks per game (1.5), 8th in rebounds per game (6.6), 8th in Win Shares (2.9) and 10th in points per game (6.3).
I included forward-centers as well to widen the list to include anyone who can spot time at center, not just pure centers. So the list includes such luminaries as Nerlens Noel (rookie in 2014-15) and Anthony Davis (second-year pro in 2013-14).
here's the link: http://bkref.com/tiny/oL3gZ
Most of those who have performed better in their first or second year are older than Alex.
In 2014-15, Len is the third youngest big man (center or forward-center) to play 1000+ minutes, behind Jusuf Nurkic and Nerlens Noel, regardless of experience level.
In the last five years (since 2010-11), Len is the fifth youngest big man (center or center-forward) to play 1000+ minutes. You can only add Anthony Davis, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond to Kurkic and Noel as the only players younger than Len to play 1000+ minutes.
Misleading advanced stats
While the raw stats are okay, the advanced stats aren't as kind to Len. While he has top-ten rankings amongst his inexperienced peers in win shares, rebounds, blocks and scoring, that's largely a function of his minutes. He ranks 8th in minutes played among guys who qualify as forward-center or center.
Advanced stats take out the minutes portion, leveling the playing field. He is just 21st in rebound rate among these peers and 23rd in win shares per 48 minutes. These can be misleading, though. Len is leapfrogged in advanced state by many short-minute guys who can exert all their energy in 2-3 minute stints because they don't have to pace themselves.
Another reason to discount advanced stats here is that many of those guys who leapfrogged Len in this lens were playing against other teams' second and third-string bigs, while Len was playing nearly all his minutes against the league's best bigs.
If you limit the field to only big-minute guys who faced off against the league's best every night, Len ranks 3rd in block rate, 3rd in defensive rating and 5th in rebound rate.
He lags behind the others offensively, ranking at the bottom of the eight in usage rate, free-throw rate and PER and 7th in offensive rating and win shares per 48 minutes (ahead of only Noel there).
It may not seem so, but Len has played a lot of minutes this season compared to big man peers of his experience level, regardless of age.
- If you limit the list only to bigs who started 40+ games in their first or second year over the last two NBA seasons, regardless of age, there's only been seven.
- If you limit the list only to bigs who played 1,500+ minutes (just 18+ minutes per game, for 82 games) in their first or second NBA season regardless of age, there's only been eight.
- In the last two seasons, there's been 43 first- or second-year big men (listed as center or forward-center) on NBA rosters who got on the court at least once. Only eight of them played 18+ minutes per game in their first year or two.
That's right. Only seven other big men, regardless of age, have played more minutes than Len's 1,518 in either their first or second year in the league these last two seasons, and only Nerlens Noel did it as a rookie.
About that Noel guy
Noel pops up all over this analysis, by the way. He's the only big man in the last two seasons who is younger and less experienced than Len and has outplayed him. Noel is getting better as the season progresses, too, while Len has worn down a bit with the ankle issues.
Noel is the youngest guy to ever notch 100 blocks and 100 steals in a season, and he's been the anchor of a top-10 defense by Philadelphia this season.
His future is at PF because he's so, so skinny - especially at the waist and below - and may never be an offensive threat (Len is a savant compared to Noel), but if he can stay healthy he could be one of the best defensive PFs in league history.
But here's what Alex Len thinks of Nerlens Noel.
This shows that big men take time to develop - or at least that teams don't like to trust big men in their first couple years in the league.
How about that Gobert guy
And then there's Rudy Gobert, he of the 7'9" wingspan I drafted last year in my mock draft for the Suns at the 10th spot. If you recall, I drafted Victor Oladipo 5th and then traded Marcin Gortat for the 10th pick, which I used on Gobert.
Kris Habbas, our NBA draft insider who has Gobert ranked top 10 even late in the draft season, talked me into Gobert and boy was Kris right.
Since the Jazz traded turnstile Kanter to OKC, Gobert has been lighting it up for the Jazz. His defensive impact is tremendous, leading the Jazz to a 15-8 second half record and only a few games behind the Suns in the standings despite an awful start while they continued the Favors/Kanter pairing.
Gobert appears to have a brighter future than Len, but I'd like to see next year's production from both guys to make any long term assessments.
They have not yet faced off as starting centers, with Len missing both Utah/Phoenix meetings (both Suns wins) since Gobert began starting.
Let's set aside the veil of youth, and compare Len to the entire league. He may be the third-youngest all ALL big men in the NBA who have logged 1000+ minutes this season, but really if you want to win basketball games you need to be able to beat the best no matter what age they are.
Of all the centers and forward-centers in the league in this season (78 have logged at least one minute of time this year), Len is 5th in block rate but only 23rd in rebound rate, 24th in defensive rating, 29th in starts and 40th in PER.
For him to be considered a really good player, he has to perform as well as, or better than, big men of ANY age.
47 forward-centers and centers have played 1000+ minutes this season. Nine of those guys are 22 and under versus 38 of them who are 24-38 years old.
Of the 47 total big men, of any age, who played center or forward-center this season for 1000+ minutes, Len ranks 16th in blocks per game, 33rd in rebounds per game and 41st in points per game.
On the advanced stats side, he's 5th in block rate (blocks per 100 chances), 23rd in rebound rate, and 22nd in defensive rating.
Yes, big men take a while to develop.
Alex Len is good, but needs to get better. Among his youth/experience peers, he will be compared to a half-dozen young centers as they develop.
Players slightly older than Alex who have performed better are Rudy Gobert (22), Steven Adams (21, but older), Andre Drummond (21), Enes Kanter (22), Jonas Valanciunas (22). Add Nurkic and Noel and you've got a good peer group with whom to grow and compare.
Zach Lowe of Grantland.com does a nice comparison of Len to Gobert, Nurkic, Noel and more. Len has some nice skills, with Lowe calling him "The Spider", probably because he's all arms and legs right now.
What does this all mean for the Suns and Alex Len? Should they develop Len over the years, or try to swap him for other talent?
I'd recommend keeping Len and developing him, unless you can swap him for a proven All-Star on a long-term contract.
Short of that, Len's as good as its going to get.
Closing highlights of this young man's abilities, all over the court.