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Phoenix Suns Player of the Week: Alex Len may finally be making good on his potential

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The fourth-year veteran is gaining experience and confidence

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

There was a fair bit of expectation placed upon Alex Len coming into this season. After watching GM Ryan McDonough revamp the roster seemingly every summer, Len had become a veteran heading into his fourth season. And whether or not you thought rookies Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender were the right picks, or whether they actually could be part of a future core, there was a Russian seven-footer standing in the way of them who deserved a last shot at development in his own right.

Ed. note: Of course Len is Ukrainian. Just a brain freeze by Brendon.

Statistically, there has not been much difference between Len’s 2015-16 season and this one. Like, shockingly little difference:

However, it doesn’t take much digging to appreciate what he’s been able to do to improve on both sides of the ball. He’s been slightly better in several important categories, which together paint a picture of an improved big man.

His offensive rating, a measure of the points the Suns score per 100 possessions that Len is on the court. As a reference point, the Suns’ 24th-ranked team ORtg is only 102.8, meaning the Suns are 4.2 points better per 100 possessions offensively when Len is on the court.

Obviously, Len is responsible for very few of the actual points being scored by the Suns (only 18.2 per 100 possessions). However, it’s been clear since the start of the new year that he is finally starting to maximize his athleticism in a way that positively impacts the team. He’s not only an improved screener, but he’s developed a great understanding of how to do so multiple times over the course of a single possession in a Suns offensive scheme that calls for a lot out of its big men at the arc.

No matter who the ball handler is, Len knows where they want their screen, which way they’ll go off of it, and whether they’ll accept or reject it.

If you read my piece on Jared Dudley earlier in the season, you’ll remember NBA.com’s Hustle Stats; basically, these numbers attempt to quantify and valuate plays we typically associate with a “great motor” or “scrappy play”. One of those statistics is Screen Assists, which are plays in which the screen-setter acts as the springboard for a teammate’s made shot. Len has tallied 88 such assists through 22 games, which puts him in seventh place overall for the season. He and Tyson Chandler both sit in the top ten for Screen Assists per game.

Defensively, he may finally be making the mention of his time as a gymnast during his childhood seem less silly and slightly more relevant to the game of basketball. The balance required to participate in such acrobatic events clearly has a use on the court, and Len is making good use of it. As coach Earl Watson likes to mention, sometimes it is as simple as giving the guys the time on the court to hone the skills they already have.

Len is asked to drop back and survey the court when defending the pick-and-roll, a style that fits his strengths better than blitzing the play toward the baseline or switching onto the ball-handler. He can play on his toes, jumping between assignments as he reads the play. The improvement in those reads and decisions could be a result of time spent under Tyson Chandler, or merely experience on the court. Either way, he’s getting better there, a necessary improvement for a modern NBA big.

The young Russian Ukrainian, who has no nickname listed on Basketball-Reference (Let’s please change this. Any ideas?), is gaining confidence simultaneously with production. Earlier in the year, he was quoted as saying to AZ Central’s Paul Coro, “Everybody else (besides Dunk Contest Champion Zach LaVine) in the league, I’m sure I can block.”

Well maybe not yet, but if he can continue along a trajectory that has suddenly sloped further upward, I’ll buy it.

The best kind of decision an NBA player can force upon his team is whether or not (and how much) to pay him after his rookie deal. In most cases, if the team is willing to re-up that player, it’s a result of demonstrable improvement over the life of his four-year deal. Alex Len is slowly making the case that the Suns’ front office perhaps ought to start peering into their wallets and gauging the free agent market; Len may soon be one of the league’s most wanted men.