Interim head coach Earl Watson announced after the Phoenix Suns' victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Feb. 27 that Alex Len would be the team's new No. 1 option on offense. Whether this announcement was made to encourage Len or as a courtesy to opposing teams so they can immediately move Len to the top of their scouting reports isn't clear; what is clear is that defenses are going to be gunning for the big Ukrainian, so if he wants to maximize this opportunity afforded him and take the next step in his development, he will need to make strides in a few key areas of his game.
Eliminate extra movement in his offense
This will be critical in determining his ceiling as an offensive player. While Len stays put on his outside shot, his moves attacking the basket possess tons of unnecessary movement. That much body contortion is counterproductive to becoming an efficient and consistent offensive threat. When taking a shot, the goal is to have consistent mechanics, and this is most easily accomplished by simplifying the mechanics themselves.
If you go back and watch old footage on YouTube, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the holy grail of simplifying mechanics. His skyhook was a thing of beauty not just for its effectiveness but for its machined precision. There is no extra movement in that shot, no matter where he shoots it from. That is the standard Len needs to aspire to with his offense. No matter the shot, his mechanics need to remain tight.
Develop a reliable hook shot and some basic post moves
Tightening shot mechanics is the most important thing he can work on offensively, but a close second is expanding his repertoire of post moves. As of today, Len's favorite moves around the basket include an up-and-under move that is equally successful at getting him a dunk or traveling violation and a move through the paint that sets up like a running jump hook but culminates in a cringeworthy one-handed running jump shot, legs and arms splayed awkwardly.
If he wants to repay Watson's faith in him offensively, he will need to come up with something reliable beyond dunking the basketball, and yes, that means adding a hook shot to his quiver. Len does not need to master the skyhook (although this observer would fall down faster than one of those fainting goats if he did), but he does need to develop some kind of hook shot — with both hands — around the basket to maximize his length and width against defenders. The precious few times he has used an actual hook shot in games, his form has looked good. He just needs repetitions with it for the move to become second nature.
Once he gains confidence with the hook shot, he will be better prepared to improve his footwork with reverse pivots and spin moves. But the footwork won't matter if Len's offensive game remains one-dimensional around the hoop.
Quit bringing the ball down
This is a terrible habit he needs to rid himself of quickly. Len, like many big men in today's game, feels a need to gather himself after catching the basketball rather than going straight up with it. This is exacerbated by his willingness to face defenders while dropping the ball. It all culminates in his tendency to get stripped by defenders when he gets swarmed. That is bad news for someone who will be seeing an increased number of touches going forward. But by breaking himself of that one habit, he will both increase his field goal attempts and decrease his live-ball turnovers.
Cut back on dumb fouls
Watson may intend to give Len increased minutes and responsibility on the court, but all that means jack squat if he can't stay on the court. Fouls have been the bane of Len's NBA career thus far (well, and injuries), with him averaging 5.2 fouls per 36 minutes for his career. He has cut that number this season to a career-low 4.9 per 36, but that corresponds to a reluctance to try to block every shot this year.
Len would be able to risk more fouls challenging shots if he stopped picking up the dumb ones, like trying to poke the ball away from his man from behind or jumping over the back of a player who had established clear inside position for a rebound. These are the fouls that serve no purpose other than to curtail Len's playing time. Learning when to spend a foul and when to let a play go in order to fight another day is all part of the mental maturation that these final 23 games will hopefully provide.
Develop an unwavering confidence
Confidence has been Len's greatest hurdle in realizing his full potential, and it has waxed and waned more than the moon over these past 2 1/2 seasons. The Feb. 22 game against the Los Angeles Clippers is a perfect example. Coming off a career-high 23 points and 13 rebounds against the San Antonio Spurs, the momentum from that game failed to carry over. He had a jump shot blocked by DeAndre Jordan 28 seconds into the game and committed an offensive foul on the very next play. His game was shaky from that point on, finishing 5 of 16 from the field and 4 of 6 from the free throw line before fouling out.
But confidence is the trickiest of all to improve, mostly because it requires experiencing success. As the saying goes, seeing is believing, and when Len saw his first shot against the Clippers get swatted back in his face and his second possession result in a turnover, you could tell the boost from the San Antonio game was gone. The confidence drained from his body because he hadn't yet experienced enough success to let a couple failures roll off his back. That first difficult minute was enough to derail the rest of his game.
However, progress in the first four areas of improvement listed above will lead to the increased success necessary to build Len's confidence. Developing a broader array of go-to post moves will lead to a greater confidence when going up against tough defenses. Learning to keep the ball away from defenders will cut down on demoralizing turnovers. Cutting back on dumb fouls will keep Len on the court and allow him to play less tentative. And the more instances of success he accumulates to draw upon, the less his game will be affected by the occasional bad stretch.