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Phoenix Suns Alex Len can't shoot straight, but learning in lost season

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In a terrible season, the Phoenix Suns have found a few bright lights for the future. One of those is Alex Len, who now projects to be a quality two-way center for years to come.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

If it seems like young Phoenix Suns center Alex Len isn't making enough of his shots, your perception is keen.

Len is finding the net on only 43.1% of his shots for the year, including just 38.9% since the All-Star Break while he's been putting up a career-high 13.5 attempts per game. Over his last two games, he's made only 5 of 24 shots. And it's not all jumpers. In the restricted area, he's converted only 4 of his last 14 shots.

Game logs

You can watch his game logs here, including video (I'm not smart enough to know how to make these GIFs for embedding, so click the link and watch every shot).

Against the Lakers, Len made 1 of 9 shots even though nearly all of them were effectively uncontested versus Julius Randle and Roy Hibbert. He just missed them. Around the rim, it appears he's spending too much effort getting the position for the shot and then just rushing it. Several times, Len had a chance to stuff the shot right down but tried to feather a two-footer instead.

Against Utah, where Len made only 4 of 15 shots, at least he had the excuse of playing against two of the best defenders in the league - Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert. Len looked confident in his step-in mid-range jumpers, but otherwise put a lot of effort into not getting his shot blocked down low. That just ended in wild, hesitant shots though. One attempt was a crazy driving double-pump reverse layup that could, and should, have been an aggressive dunk at the rim with Favors behind him.

The 22-year old Len is still learning, of course. He's the 6th youngest center to start at least 30 games this year, and the youngest to be posting 15.5 points and 11.8 rebounds per game since the Break.

Len's good games are very good games. Just look at Len's best game in the past week - against the Warriors and Andrew Bogut, no less.

He's never been the focal point of an offense before, and seems like every shot he takes is the first time he's trying it. Some games are good. Some games are real bad.

He needs to get comfortable in his offense, and go strong no matter what he does - either drive hard to the rim, or put up a short jumper without hesitation, or look for the cutter to the rim or kick out to the three point line. With Tyson Chandler often on the floor with him, there's no real cutting lanes, though. Maybe Len can develop enough in a single-center offense to find cutters in the coming seasons.

Worst

In the meantime, we see the growing pains. Len's shooting this season (43.1%) is the worst field goal percentage among centers who have started at least 30 games.

Luckily, he's not setting any NBA records for futility. In the last 33 years, 54 other starting centers (ie. started 30+ games) have posted a worse field goal percentage than Len's 43.1%, including active players DeMarcus Cousins in 2010-11 (43.0%), Zaza Pachulia in 2013-14 (42.7%), and Byron Mullens in 2012-13 (38.5%). Just barely better than Len have been Festus Ezeli in 2012-13 (43.8%) and Roy Hibbert in 2013-14 (43.9%).

But that's it. A short handful of active players have posted worse or comparable shooting percentages from the center position.

I know Len's been playing a lot of power forward next to Tyson Chandler, which clogs the lane. The scheme has been putting Len in scoring positions he's never tested before, so of course he's facing a huge learning curve.

Let's compare his heat charts from last year, where he scored on 50.4% of his shots which put him more in the middle of the pack of centers.

2014-15 Heat Map

len-2015-heat-chart

In 2014-15, most of Len's points came near the rim with very little creativity involved. Len made 67% of his shots at the rim (dunks, layups and tips) last year, which accounted for 54% of all his shot attempts.

Looking at these 2014-15 highlights gives good example of Len's offensive repertoire a year ago.

He was a self-proclaimed last option on offense, starting at center for a team in need of his rebounding and defense more than offense. And as we remember, Len has never been assertive. Most of his starts came with a variety of aggressive offensive weapons in the Suns lineup, from Goran Dragic to Isaiah Thomas to Eric Bledsoe to Brandon Knight to Markieff Morris to Gerald Green to T.J. Warren to Marcus Morris.

2015-16 Heat Map

This season, it's still true that most of Len's points are at the rim. But he's added so much more to his game, especially since becoming a primary offensive player in the Suns rotation after the Suns were hit with myriad injuries.

So far this year, Len has set career highs in scoring three times, pouring in 20 in December, then 23 in February, then 31 in March. He's got five 20+ point games this year and 15 double-doubles (eight of them in the past three weeks), after collecting no 20-point games and 10 double-doubles in his first two seasons combined.

len-2016-heat-chart

Len's shooting percentages are down across the board this year. While he's shooting marginally better on jumpers (31% versus 30%), everything else has fallen off. His field goal % on DUNKS has dropped from 91.7% to 87% (on 77 attempts), it's the field goal % on LAYUPS that has dropped inexplicably from 58% to 39% (on 136 attempts).

How do you explain a 7'1", 260 man making only 39% of his layups? Mainly, it's because he's creating his own offense so much more this year. Most of Len's offense is coming out of the post now, where he's getting himself to the rim for the layup or driving across the lane into a hook.

We can only hope it's growing pains that we are watching, and that Len will grow into a reliable scorer as time passes. Right now, it's in the other team's best interest to let Len take the shot.

But that's not all

Fortunately for Len, he's not a one-trick pony. Len is a strong rebounder - tops in the league in rebound percentage since the break - and solid defender in the paint. He's even got quick enough lateral movement to hold his own in pick-and-roll coverage. He will have a long career as a rebounder/defender in the pivot.

But if he can figure out some go-to moves that produce a 55%+ shooting percentage in coming seasons, he can be a building block.

*all stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com and nba.com/stats