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Phoenix Suns’ Alex Len having career year ahead of restricted free agency

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Orlando Magic Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

We have written a lot about Alex Len in this space, and unfortunately since his career-best second season with the Phoenix Suns most of the reviews have been less than stellar. Len stagnated in 2015-16, nearly recorded the worst shooting percentage in NBA history for a 7-footer while his defense slipped as well.

Some fellow big men from the 2013 NBA Draft have been given lucrative contract extensions, yet Len has decided to bet on himself and wait until next summer for his huge payday.

If the first month of the season is any indication, Len made a good bet.

On the same minutes per game as last year (23), Len is posting career highs in scoring (9.4, on 49.5% shooting), rebounding (8.2) and has recovered his shot-blocking touch (1.4) while reducing his turnovers (1.3).

Defense

After nearly a month of play, Len is third in the entire league in shots contested at 13.9 per game, trailing only the Bulls’ Robin Lopez and Golden State’s Draymond Green. Notably, Len plays the fewest minutes per game (23) of all the top 10 shot-contesters.

Len is tops so far this season among 2013-drafted centers in defending the rim, holding his opponents 12% below their normal shooting percentage in that area when he’s the defender. Across the league, he’s 10th in that category among NBA big men who have defended at least 3 shots per game in that area.

This is quite an improvement over last season when Len was third from the bottom on this same metric. Some credit goes to the scheme the Suns are playing this year, where they have the big men sag to the rim and let the guards defend the mid and long range, and some goes to Len himself.

What’s interesting, and probably against the trend of the NBA in general, is that both Len and fellow center Tyson Chandler average 0.0 charges drawn per game while committing more fouls than ever. This jives with Watson’s goal of being aggressive on defense rather than passive, and flopping has long been considered the non-aggressive way out on defense. The Suns lead the league in fouls committed with a defensive scheme geared to contest shots in the paint with the intent to stop the score and/or commit a foul, rather than try to draw an offensive foul on the other team.

Offense

On the other end of the court, Len has simplified his game this season and is now approaching a quite respectable 50% shooting percentage on the season. He’s shooting fewer jumpers and making a few more at the rim than a year ago. It helps that he’s playing full time center this year, rather than trying to moonlight as a power forward.

He is also 10th in the league with 3.9 screen assists per game: plays on which screens thrown by a player result directly in a made shot by the teammate for whom he screened. Tyson Chandler ranks third in this category with 5.0 per game.

As I mentioned last week, much of the Suns offense comes from the ball handler being the scorer - be it Devin Booker, Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight or T.J. Warren - which can only happen if the big man provides effective screens as the ball handler drives by.

Compared to peers

It’s still just one month into the season, but Alex Len leads all big men from his draft so far in defensive rebound percentage and is second in total rebound percentage.

Len won’t be a star, but he has become a very respectable rotational big man in a league that is seeing a resurgence at the center position. For years, many thought the NBA center was a dying breed, but the emergence of players like Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Myles Turner to go along with Rudy Gobert, Mason Plumlee, Andre Drummond, Steven Adams and others brings in a new era of 7-footers dominating the game. Teams will need a guy like Alex Len who can play big against the league’s biggest men.

Most of the newest NBA breed combine old-school skills like Len’s and Gobert’s with a long-range shooting touch that Len doesn’t yet have, and Len isn’t very good defending in space out on the perimeter.

But Len can hold his own in the paint against the NBA’s biggest players, and that’s a necessary skill that will never die out.

I came into the season mostly expecting the Suns to move on from both Tyson Chandler and Alex Len next season. I expected the Suns to sign a journeyman center to a low-level deal and give time to Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender there next year.

While I still think something like that could (and probably should) happen, the emergence of so many good 7-footers might just make bringing back Len, sans Chandler, could make re-signing Len a good bet.