Ryan McDonough’s first big move as General Manager of the Phoenix Suns in 2013 was to draft his team’s next cornerstone player with their highest draft pick in 26 years.
What he got with the 5th overall pick was a journeyman center who, while he might spend 15 years in NBA rotations, isn’t even the cornerstone of a bench unit let alone a starting lineup, not to mention a playoff team.
Unfortunately, McDonough was trying to hit a home run in the land of singles and popups. He was picking toward the top of an historically bad draft where the #1 overall pick, Anthony Bennett, has already been traded and outright released by two different teams and not a single Top-10 pick is likely to be named to an All-Star team.
With the 5th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, McDonough sloughed off the pressure to draft late-fallers Ben McLemore and Nerlens Noel - the latter expected to miss a whole year with a devastating knee injury - to instead take a high-ceiling, high-risk center prospect named Alex Len.
At 7’1” (with a 7’3” wing span) on a 260-pound frame, the 19-year old Len had perfect size for NBA centers. He also showed glimpses of a wide array of skills on both offense and defense, but had only four years of basketball playing experience in his back pocket and would need time and health (bad ankle) to develop into the two-way star he could become.
Some draft experts rated Len the #1 overall prospect in the 2013 draft, but that whole draft was a farce. Years later, the best overall players in that draft went 27th (Rudy Gobert), 22nd (Mason Plumlee), 15th (Giannis Antetokounmpo), 12th (Steven Adams) and 10th (C.J. McCollum).
Among the top 5 actual draft picks, none are full are full-time starters. Victor Oladipo (2nd) and Cody Zeller (4th) earned lucrative rookie extensions yesterday but have been in and out of their team’s starting lineup and neither will be All-Stars. Oladipo, the more starter-y of the two, has already been traded once.
The Rookie of the Year, Michael Carter-Williams, went 11th overall but has since fizzled to the point he’s been traded twice and is no longer anyone’s long term answer at point guard.
For those scoring at home, the #1 overall pick and the ROY are both clinging to NBA roster spots just three seasons into their careers.
The best lottery pick from that draft is an “old”, undersized shooting guard (C.J. McCollum). I say “old” because he entered the league at the ripe age of 22 and had his breakthrough NBA season at the age of 24 - a year older than Alex Len is today.
Alex Len is neither a star nor a complete bust. He’s a rotational center still loaded with potential but, as yet, no idea how to harness it. Worse yet, he’s shown little growth since getting healthy from the ankle issues in his second year.
If you exclude Len’s rookie year, where he barely played due to injury, he still ranks poorly among his draft class relative to his #5 overall draft position just looking at the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons.
- 10th in games played
- 18th in minutes per game
- 5th in rebounds per game
- 6th in blocks per game
- 20th in points per game
- gawdawful in FG%
- 18th in Win Shares
*all data in this article courtesy of basketball-reference.com
The only area where he holds his own against his draft class is rebounding. Among all 2013 draftees, including four big men who signed big extensions yesterday, Len is 2nd in rebound rate (2nd in defensive rebound rate, 4th in offensive rebound rate).
Yet in four games this year, even his rebounding percentage has regressed compared to his career high a year ago, and when you compare him to the entire league his rebound rate from 2014-16 ranks only 28th among NBA centers.
So it’s no wonder the Suns will let Len test the market next summer rather than give him a long-term contract extension.
While later-picked centers from that same draft signed rookie extensions yesterday paying them up to $25 million per year, the Suns declined to heavily negotiate a contract extension with Len, which makes him a restricted free agent next summer.
The Suns will still have the right match any offer Len receives on the open market, but with price tags north of $20 million per year for rotational centers, the Suns might be better served to spend their money elsewhere.
Len is only 23 years old, so he might still develop into a force in this league. And it’s true that many fringe NBA centers have developed their playable skills at a later age.
And the theory of Alex Len is still so enticing. He brings the team-first attitude and prototypical size to be a good rotational center around light-rebounding Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender for the next several years. He has the quickness to contest on the pick-and-roll and protect the basket, and he can rebound the ball with the best of them.
But to expect, or even hope, that Len maximizes his considerable talents into an All-Star caliber player is a pipe dream at this point. There’s just so so far to go for Len to become a difference maker on either end of the floor.
The Suns made the right choice to let Len become a restricted free agent next summer.