When Earl Watson took over as the coach of the Phoenix Suns, he surprised most and disappointed some when he named Markieff Morris the team's leader and top scoring option.
Morris had been in coach Hornacek's dog house all season for not committing himself to the Suns after they traded away his brother. Morris was also in the dog house of nearly every Suns fan and front office member.
Yet Watson flouted that logic and heaped praise and adulation onto Morris. They each bragged about how Watson spent the entire afternoon leading up to the game talking and texting back and forth about Markieff needing to be the team's leader. Morris responded by scoring 30 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in Watson's first game as coach.
Over 5 games leading into the All-Star break, Morris averaged 20.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists, easily his best option stretch of the season. The Suns were able to swap Morris for a potential lottery pick days later, and openly credited Watson for pushing the right buttons.
Now Watson is focusing on the Suns multi-talented but relatively underwhelming center, Alex Len, compared to his lofty Top-5 draft pick status.
"We talked about establishing points in the paint," Watson said after scored 22 points on Saturday night. "After the (Morris) trade we couldn't establish that. So what do we do? Started big, started Alex Len...
"I texted him today. I said, ‘hey Len, are you ready to start?'. He texted me back, ‘whatever you want'. I said ‘it's time. It's time for you to make that step forward. It's time for you to be our number one option.'"
Len responded with 22 points and 16 rebounds, including 8 impactful points in the 4th quarter to answer Grizzlies scores that could have served to crumble the Suns' confidence.
"Alex Len played terrific," Memphis coach Dave Joerger said. "Devin Booker showed why he was a top 13 pick. You have that kind of talent, those are guys that you can really develop and they did a great job."
"The young fella Len had a great game, he hit some big shots," Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph said after the game.
In 4 games since the All-Star break, Len is putting 18 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in 27 minutes per game. Now, if he's starting next to Tyson Chandler or sliding to center when Chandler rests, Len is going to get a lot of touches in post-up situations as well as mid-range.
You can see all of that skill on display in the video above, against the likes of Chris Anderson, Brandan Wright and Zach Randolph.
"Let's let (Devin Booker) ease to the number two option and make it easier for him," Watson said of his thinking. "Now you have to defend the paint, which will make it easier for Booker on the perimeter, and that's a good balance.
"It's time for Alex Len to get experience. He hit clutch shots, clutch jump-shots, clutch rebounds, clutch defensive sets he had to guard and defend. He and Booker, they need this opportunity. And within this opportunity we can still win, but we have to accept the challenge and stay involved in the process, and it's just one step forward."
A big development for Len is that he's doing this - 18 and 11 per night - while nursing another sprained ankle. He turned it just after the All-Star break during a practice and missed the first game back. But in four games since, he's been a beast. He had a great game (23 points, 13 rebounds) against Tim Duncan and the Spurs, then 13 and 8 against DeAndre Jordan and 13 and 6 against Brook Lopez.
In those games, though, Len is a -30 on the floor which is a glimpse into why he hasn't gotten these chances on a consistent basis before. Len often plays with the Suns second unit, which explains some of that fail. But he also hasn't been able to be a defensive presence and scoring threat on a consistent basis at the same time.
Yet, as the Suns truck inexorably toward the bottom of the league, what better time than now to give Len a chance to prove he's worth his top draft pick status?