After two straight seasons marred by injuries, it was reasonable to wonder if Alex Len's body would ever be able to withstand the punishment of an 82-game season. The 2015-16 season proved Len is more than a 7'1'' Fabergé egg, as he played 78 games. Even more, the colossal implosion of the Phoenix Suns' playoff hopes meant Len received ample opportunity to gain experience in game situations. The results were, well, there were results...
According to a number of human resource manuals on, let's say, the Internet, the Compliment Sandwich — where a bit of criticism is delivered between two compliments — is the single most effective way to offer criticism without alienating someone. So to begin this discussion of Len's offense, here is a compliment: Alex Len has a very nice mustache. There. Doesn't everyone feel put at ease?
Now, there is no nice way to put this. Alex Len was terrible on offense this year. According to basketball-reference.com, of players 7-foot or taller who attempted at least 500 field goals in a season, Len's field goal percentage of 42.3 percent was 25th worst in NBA history. Not team history, NBA history, which dates back to 1946-47. And keep in mind that five of those with worse field goal percentages than Len attempted over 100 3-pointers. Getting more specific, Len shot 52 percent within five feet of the basket in 2015-16, which placed him 34th out of 42 7-footers this year and dead last among 7-footers who attempted more than 2.5 shots per game from that range. He also ranked dead last among 7-footers who had at least one FGA per game from five to nine feet (29.5 percent), from 10 to 14 feet with a minimum of 0.5 FGA per game (30.6 percent), and from 15 to 19 feet with a minimum of one FGA per game (33.6 percent).
Honestly, the only saving grace for Len's scoring offense this season was his ability to draw fouls on those flailing shots he took. After drawing a shooting foul approximately once every 27 minutes over his first two seasons, the rate at which he drew shooting fouls this season rose to one every 16.1 minutes. And his free throw percentage rose to a career-high 72.8 percent, which made those fouls he drew more valuable. However, the increase in his drawn shooting fouls is almost assuredly due to his career-high usage of 20.4 percent.
One area of Len's offense that looked better was his passing, which was at its best when he operated in high-low sets with other bigs like Tyson Chandler and Jon Leuer. That led to a career-high 1.2 assists per game and eight of the top 10 assist games of his career, including a career-high seven on Apr. 7. And while his assist-to-turnover ratio of 0.67 isn't much to look at, it is worth noting that only 37 of his 145 turnovers were due to bad passes, giving him a 2.62 assist-to-pass-related-turnover ratio. That's something, right?
To be fair, Len did show some growth offensively. He averaged a career-high 9 points per game, scored 20 or more points five times this season after never doing so in his first two seasons, and scored a career-high 31 points on Mar. 4. However, his offensive game remains clunky and spastic, and for the few times he offers a glimpse of his potential with an impressive offensive maneuver, he tacks on five or six that make you want to slam your forehead down onto the nearest hard surface. This summer, he needs to work extensively on his offense. Specifically, he needs to master one offensive move around the basket. Just one. Then, he can begin the process of building out from there. And if it sounds like a broken record, so be it: It needs to be a hook shot.
And now for the final slice of delicious compliment bread: Seriously, Alex, that mustache would make Burt Reynolds jealous.
Len's defense is another area that feels like it took a precipitous drop-off, but the actual numbers suggest that's not necessarily the case.
There's no ignoring the decline in his traditional defensive numbers. While his steals remained steady at 0.5 per game, his blocks fell from 1.5 last season to 0.8 this season. That decline averages out to a career-worst 1.2 blocks on a per 36 basis. Going into advanced metrics, his block percentage of 2.8 was also a career low and a far cry from when his block percentage ranked fifth in the NBA at 5.3 percent last season.
According to NBA.com's defensive impact stats, though, Len's field goals defended at rim percent of 50.6 is not a ton poorer than his 49.1 percent from either of his first two seasons. This stat, which counts shots where the defender is five feet or less from both the rim and the shooter, would seem to suggest that while Len was being less aggressive in pursuing blocks this season, his "stay vertical" approach was not completely ineffective. However, it is still a step backward and remains nowhere close to the rarified air of a Rudy Gobert (41 percent), who was fourth in the NBA among all players 6'10'' or taller to Len's 66th.
As well, Len held players he guarded to 0.2 percent worse field goal shooting than their average and 0.9 percent worse from 2-point range, including 1.6 percent worse from within six feet of the basket. None of these numbers are an improvement over his 2014-15 numbers (-0.9 percent overall, -3.2 percent from 2, -6.3 percent from within six feet), but they do indicate he remained a deterrent on defense despite poorer block numbers.
Finding a happy medium here is key for Len. He possesses the height, length, quickness, and lateral foot speed to be a quality defensive big man, but he cannot play defense afraid of picking up fouls as he did this season, especially with Chandler there to take some pressure off. Len's mentality on defense going into 2016-17 should be to put the offensive player on his heels, and if he focuses on mastering the angles and schemes necessary to do that, he will return a confident defender.
Rebounding is the area where Len showcased himself the best this past season. He averaged a career-best 7.6 rebounds per game in only 23.3 minutes per game, which works out to 11.7 rebounds per 36 minutes. That helped him record a career-high 19 double-doubles and post 13 of the top 14 rebounding games of his career. That includes the career-high 18 rebounds he had on Feb. 4 against Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets.
Furthermore, his rebound percentage of 17.4 and defensive rebound percentage of 24.8 were both the highest of his career. (Note: NBA.com and basketball-reference.com list slight variations in these stats. NBA.com stats were used here.)
If should also be acknowledged that Len did all this while playing alongside fellow 7'1'' center Chandler and battling the opposition's biggest player, as Chandler would guard the smaller big when both he and Len shared the court.
The biggest knock on Len's rebounding is his propensity for tapping the ball out to the perimeter for second-chance opportunities. While the skill — obviously picked up from Chandler — helped him secure more possessions for his team that he couldn't secure on his own, it proved to be a double-edged sword, as Len would fall into the bad habit of tapping the ball during instances where he could have secured the rebound himself with a tad more effort. As well, Len isn't a great rebounder outside of his area and needs to work on his pursuit of the basketball — without going over the backs of players! This cannot be stressed enough.
Rebounding is the most sound part of Len's overall game, but he can still find ways to improve here. If nothing else, he should watch film of teammate P.J. Tucker's dogged pursuit of the basketball and incorporate some of that into his game.
Player Specific: Mental
In his first 13 games after the All-Star break, Len averaged 16.5 points and 12.2 rebounds per game. A player doesn't put up those kinds of numbers over a 13-game stretch by accident. There is talent in this kid, but the biggest factor standing in the way of Alex Len realizing that talent is Alex Len himself. His confidence level doesn't ebb and flow like the tides; it ebbs and flows like the shoreline during a tsunami.
It is why Len can dunk twice over San Antonio's Brobdingnagian center Boban Marjanovic:
And then in the very same game get a dunk blocked by San Antonio's very non-Brobdingnagian small forward Rasual Butler:
And it is why despite being 7'1'', he managed to get his field goal attempts blocked 9.6 percent of the time this past season.
Len's issues with his confidence are so profound that they even manifest themselves in an observable way. When he's engaged and feeling confident about himself, he plays loose and looks every inch of his height. When he gets down on himself, he begins shying away from contact and looks like a guy a foot shorter than he is, attempting leaning layups under defenders' arms instead of going strong and attacking the basket.
Len lets on-court failures compound themselves until they overwhelm him. A missed shot or turnover this season were often all it took to start the downward spiral that led to unnecessary fouls or ill-advised shot attempts as he tried to atone for earlier mistakes. Instead, it usually landed him on the bench. Even as Len learned to keep shooting from midrange after a miss or two, he often would look to be aiming his shot rather than shooting it freely.
Improving one's confidence is no easy task, but there are a couple things Len can do to help the process along. First, learn to slow down. Compounding mistakes with more mistakes is not helpful, but that is exactly what happens when he tries to do too much too fast. Second, stay within himself. Develop a handful of reliable offensive moves and a counter with each, and make the defense stop those. Attacking the defense without a plan or with shaky offensive moves just leads to failure. Lastly, learn to view moments in the game as individual battles. Some he will win. Some he will lose. But no single battle should be allowed to affect another. Just because he loses one battle doesn't mean he will lose the next, and the sooner he stops dwelling over past lost battles and learns to simply move on to the next one, the sooner he will stop outthinking himself and just play the game.
Alex Len had an average season for an NBA center, and while it's easy to focus on the negative aspects of his 2015-16 campaign, it is important to remember the positives as well. Len did make strides this season, all the while being asked to be a focal point of an NBA team's offense for the first time in his career — a role he (likely) won't have to resume next season. Aside from remaining largely healthy for a full season (except for a lingering hand injury), he proved to be a good rebounder, a capable distributor, and even demonstrated a solid offensive game in the moments he wasn't getting in his own way.
"It was better than last year, so that's all I can ask for for myself: just continue to get better year by year," said Len about his 2015-16 season during exit interviews. "I'm going to talk with the front office and ask what they want me to work on and continue to move forward and continue to keep getting better."
Hopefully he follows through on that because even though he made some progress this season, he still has a long way to go if he is to live up to being drafted No. 5 overall in 2013. He showed this season that the ability is there, but how dedicated he is to turning his myriad weaknesses into strengths will determine how much of that ability he ultimately taps into.
Final Grade: C