April 13. That's when the Phoenix Suns faced off against the Los Angeles Clippers — well, what's left of the Los Angeles Chippers after you take away all their good players — in a meaningless game at the tail end of an abysmal season. But for power forward Alan Williams, it was anything but meaningless. The burly rookie posted career highs of 14 points, 12 rebounds, and three blocks to help Phoenix avoid a 60-loss season and leave a good impression with the coaching staff and front office as the summer approaches.
For players like Williams, who is on a non-guaranteed contract, those opportunities are precious, and he took full advantage, playing inspired, fearless basketball. For Alex Len, that example needs to resonate.
Len, whose good health afforded him the most consistent court time of his career this season, finally made his ankles a non-story.
"I definitely have a great feeling, you know?" Len said of being healthy this year. "I missed only four games and just being healthy was a big factor for me the last few years and I finally got to that point where I played almost an entire season. So hopefully I'll be healthy continuing moving forward."
He provided hope to the Len supporters, setting career highs for points (31), rebounds (18), assists (7), and double-doubles (19) while putting up averages of 9 points and 7.6 rebounds in 23.3 minutes per game. He provided fuel for the Len detractors, shooting just 42.3 percent from the field and seeing his field goal percentage from within five feet drop from 63 percent in 2014-15 to 52 percent this year. And by the end of the season, he had provided everyone an object lesson in frustration.
Far and away, the biggest disappointment with Len's play this season was not his comically absurd post game that appears better suited as an elaborate prank on Trigger Happy TV than it does for a professional basketball player (more on this later); it was his regression on the defensive end of the floor.
In 78 games, Len blocked 62 shots for an average of 0.8 blocks per game. Contrast that with last season, when Len blocked 105 shots in 69 games (1.5 BPG). Even more telling, his block percentage dropped from 5.3 percent in 2014-15 to a career-worst 2.8 percent this season. For a player who is 7'1'', that is an unacceptable decline.
Much of that decline can be attributed to a lack of aggressiveness as Len focused on keeping himself out of foul trouble. However, that did more harm than good, with Len making himself less of a defensive deterrent while seeing his year-over-year foul rate only drop from 3.1 to 2.9 per game this year.
This is the first lesson Len needs to take from Williams' finale: be aggressive on defense. Referees reward players who are actually playing defense and will give them the benefit of the doubt on plays they otherwise might not. But a referee isn't going to reward a player who is just trying to not get called for a foul. Not only does that player already look guilty, but he is also apt to hesitate on rotations or contests because he is thinking about the wrong things on defense. Williams didn't have that problem. He went out and blocked three shots despite being only 6'8''. Even more impressive is that he fearlessly challenged — and blocked — dunk attempts mano a mano instead of ducking out of the way. He wasn't afraid of picking up fouls, and as a result, he was given the benefit of the doubt from the officials where a more hesitant player might have been whistled for a foul.
Len needs to understand that fouls aren't a negative. Players are given six per game for a reason and shouldn't be afraid to use them. Fouls only become a negative when they aren't used wisely. In other words, aggressive fouls are fine; passive fouls are not. This goes even further. If opponents believe Len is concerned with picking up fouls and will do little more than stand there like a mannequin with hands raised, they are going to attack him without fear and in the process draw more fouls on him. But if opponents believe Len will be coming to challenge their shots aggressively and that they might get fouled hard in the process, they will not be as quick to attack, and Len's reputation alone will save him a foul or two a game.
To put it simply: Play smart but stay aggressive, and live with the results.
Now back to Len's offense, which remains agonizingly unrefined. It would be easy to pick apart the flaws of his post game (and they are legion), but that is not the point here. The point of this article is to highlight what Len can learn from Williams, so the second lesson Len needs to take from Williams' finale: use your size.
Williams is an undersized big man but uses all of his 260lbs to create space around himself to operate. Len doesn't have Williams' width, but his size advantage is vertical. So it is confounding that Len would choose to negate that advantage by playing low and bringing the ball down where smaller players can (re: do) take it from him. The concept is rudimentary, but Len continues to play basketball like a player a foot shorter than he is. If Len ever wants to be more than a player who scores all his points on put-backs and assisted dunks, he needs to stop playing away from his advantages and act like a 7-footer.
Although Len has 179 more NBA games under his belt than Williams, that doesn't mean he can't learn a thing or two from the rookie. In the end, it's about improving, and if Len can incorporate a few aspects of Williams' game into his own over the summer, he will be all the better for it.