Late in their final game last season against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Phoenix Suns’ bench was euphoric as they watched their young center dominate the Clippers in the paint to the tune of 14 points, 12 rebounds, and three blocks.
Alex Len watched it all from the bench.
It was Alan Williams having the breakout game to end the season on a high note after Len checked out late in the third quarter and never returned. Len contributed just 10 points and three rebounds against NBA vagabond Cole Aldrich in his 28 minutes that night — a game he rightfully should have dominated.
Such was the season for Len, whose underwhelming play was offset just enough by occasional solid performances and fleeting flirtations with realizing his potential. In his healthiest season last year — appearing in 78 games — he averaged career highs for scoring (9.0) and rebounding (7.6) while given an expanded role but also had one of the worst shooting seasons (42.3 percent) in NBA history for a 7-footer.
By contrast, the Alex Len from 2014-15 averaged 6.3 points and 6.6 rebounds over an injury-riddled 69 games but shot an efficient 50.7 percent from the field and ranked fifth in the league for block percentage at 5.3.
The Suns would love for the 2016-17 version of Len to merge the best qualities of the previous two versions, and a Len who successfully accomplished this feat would make a strong case to supplant Tyson Chandler as Phoenix’s No. 1 center. Entering a contract year, it would behoove him to find that happy medium.
“Every year it’s like you’re starting a new page,” Len told Tom Leander and Tom Chambers during Media Day. “You’ve been working a lot on different moves, working on your body, so you can’t wait to show what you’ve been working on. That’s exactly how I feel. I want to show what I’ve been doing the entire summer where I’ve been putting a lot of work and just I want to show the fans what I’ve been doing.”
While those words are encouraging to hear from Len, very few doubt he possesses the tools to be a very good NBA center. The question that has dogged him is whether he can access those tools on a consistent basis, which makes what he said immediately preceding the earlier quote all the more important.
“I feel like this summer, my biggest jump was more mental than physically,” Len said. “My body feels great. Last year, I think last year was a great foundation for me for the future. …This year, I feel like I matured more and feel like I’m getting older.”
That is a significant quote from someone who was inside his own head far too often last season. Coach Earl Watson has on multiple occasions said Len’s biggest hurdle is confidence, but there is only so much a coach can do to correct such an issue. However, if Len himself has recognized this weakness and taken steps over the summer to address it, he could finally turn the corner as a player.
So far, the evidence has been mixed. During the Suns’ open scrimmage, Len had eight points and a team-high nine rebounds while showing a nice touch from mid range. Against the San Antonio Spurs in the first preseason game, though, he had just five points and four rebounds on 1-of-4 shooting.
But beyond the stats, there were reasons for optimism. In the scrimmage, Len rebounded strong with two hands, securing many himself that he would have batted out last season.
Against San Antonio, Len bounced back from a ghost-like performance in the first half to make his presence felt in the third quarter, attacking the basket with more abandon instead of relying on finesse shots around the rim. He also had two blocks in the game — a stat that tapered off for him last season. Len still has room for improvement in regard to his rim aggressiveness, but considering how the game likely would have played out for him last season after such an ineffective start, his third-quarter burst is a development worth keeping an eye on at least.
The Suns continue to hold out hope that Len can develop into their center of the future and hired former All-Star center Mehmet Okur as a player development coach to act as a mentor for players like Len — something Len has never enjoyed during his time in Phoenix. He formed a quick bond with Okur over their similar histories of overcoming family struggles to reach the NBA and is hoping to apply the lessons Okur has to teach on shooting and footwork to his own game.
“I just want to follow his path,” Len told Leander and Chambers of Okur.
If Len could develop the smooth mid range stroke Okur honed over his NBA career, it would be a huge plus for Len, but becoming an Okur clone is less important than merely becoming a consistent Alex Len. For the first time, it sounds as if he may recognize this fact, but with the Suns’ first regular-season game just over three weeks away, the clock is ticking on whether Len can turn those words into results.