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What in the world happened to Alex Len?

The Phoenix Suns' highest draft pick in 30 years has been slow to adapt to the NBA, and may never become a high-end starter. But could he still become a difference-maker on a playoff team?

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

As we've written and discussed many times, the Phoenix Suns have drafted in the Top 5 only one time in the past thirty years. That one player is Alex Len, who in his third NBA season still hasn't become a foundational NBA starter despite being blessed with ideal NBA size and talent.


Sure, the Suns sometimes have hit it big in the NBA Draft in the past thirty years. Jeff Hornacek (#46, 1986), Dan Majerle (#14, 1988), Michael Finley (#21, 1995), Steve Nash (#15, 1996), Shawn Marion (#9, 1999) and Amare Stoudemire (#9, 2002) all were named to at least one All-Star team in their careers after being drafted to play for the Suns.

Additionally, the Suns draft position was occasionally used by other teams to take future All-Stars as well, including Luol Deng (#7, 2004) and Rajon Rondo (#21, 2006). It's tough to give credit to the Suns for the Deng/Rondo picks since the pick was traded before the player was named, but the point is that the pick position produced an All-Star talent.

That's six players in 20 years of first-round drafting (30%) who went on to play in at least All-Star game after being taken by the Phoenix Suns. Each of those drafts were overseen by a Colangelo, either father Jerry or son Bryan.


But in the past 9 drafts, from 2007 to 2015, no Suns picks have become All-Stars. Even worse, none of them even project to be All-Stars in the future.

Note: Bryan C. drafted six times for Toronto since leaving the Suns, taking one All-Star in that time (DeMar DeRozan, who made it in this fifth season)

Those 9 drafts were overseen by a trio of GMs from Steve Kerr to Lance Blanks to Ryan McDonough. Kerr's only major draft picks were Robin Lopez, Goran Dragic and Earl Clark. Kerr traded most of his picks. In fact, between Colangelo and Kerr, the Suns traded their pick in 2004 (Deng), 2005 (Nate Robinson), 2006 (Rondo), 2007 (Rudy Fernandez), 2008 (Serge Ibaka) and 2010 (Quincy Pondexter).

Huh. And somehow, the Suns had no kids to take over for aging veterans.

Blanks' major picks were Markieff Morris and Kendall Marshall. McDonough's picks are all still 23 or younger, but each of Alex Len, T.J. Warren and Devin Booker have been starters at different times. Even overseas-stash Bogdan Bogdanovic (two-time Rising Star in Europe) has potential. Booker, in particular, appears to have a bright future.

But Alex Len is the highest of all those picks mentioned above.

Shouldn't Alex Len become the first All-Star draftee since Amare?

Probably not.

In fact, I'd be shocked. Even if Len reaches the height of his super power potential, the NBA is moving away from big, lumbering centers.

Len is the old school prototype NBA center in terms of size - 7'1"+ height, 7'3"+ reach, 260 pounds - and he has the raw talent to be a force on offense and defense. He lumbers around a bit, but he's got feet quick enough to defend the rim and the pick-and-roll on the perimeter. He can also score inside, and has a good shooting form, as well as a good sense for rebounding.

Len's problems are in his head. He still overthinks the game, and when he's not playing aggressively and instinctively, he's struggling.

He can go from one great game, like this one where we scored 19 points and pulled down 13 rebounds against the Pelicans on December 18... going 11 straight games with no more than 7 rebounds or 6 points. During that stretch, he suffered from a pair of sprained fingers and Tyson Chandler's return to the starting lineup.

But still, that's 11 games of real poor results. Len went into one of his funks. He was not playing with confidence, and when he loses confidence he loses effectiveness.

Then this week, after resting his injured fingers for a few days, Len has come back with a vengeance off the bench. On Tuesday, he pulled down 12 rebounds. Thursday night, he scored 13 points and grabbed 8 rebounds as the power forward, sharing time with Tyson Chandler. His 13 points included a pair of mid-range jumpers and two posterizing dunks over an Ent.

Len is steadily improving on a regular basis despite lacking a good facilitator to set him up for easy shots. He just needs to be more consistent for his career to continue to progress.


Could Len become a major starter for a playoff team?

Robin Lopez and Goran Dragic both grew into starting-caliber players for a playoff team. Neither are All-Stars, but they play well enough to make about $30 million per year between them.

Could Len join that group, becoming a regular starter on a good team? You betcha.

Robin Lopez is a perfect example of a player growing into that starting role later in his career. Both Lopez and Len were raw, 20-year old products coming out of college. Both had great work ethic. Both dealt with frustrating injury problems. And both were pushed to the bench in their third year by proven NBA veterans (Marcin Gortat and Tyson Chandler) after some second-year starting experience.

Hopefully, the Suns learned their lesson from giving up on Lopez too early and will show more patience with Alex Len as he matures into his body and the NBA game.

Robin Lopez matured, got healthy, and found his niche in the starting lineup with the Portland Trailblazers from 2013-2015 before that team was blown up in LMA's wake. He now signed for $13 million per year to start for the New York Knicks.

In two years, the Suns could be rising out of this rebuild and Len will still only be 24 years old. By then, his consistency and health should have improved with age, and his double-double potential could be closer to reality.

Don't get frustrated with Len's injury problems or slow adjustment to the NBA.

Just enjoy the good times when they appear.

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