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The curious case of Alex Len faces extension talk with Phoenix Suns

Several young big men got large rookie extensions this summer. Will Alex Len join the group, or hold out for more money next summer?

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

On the one hand, Phoenix Suns big man Alex Len has all the tools and size he needs to excel in the NBA as an old-school center with a variety of offensive moves, the length to defend the basket and the hunger to rebound errant shots on both ends of the court.

But on the other hand, Len experiences frequent bouts of indecision and often lets his offensive struggles hinder his effort, rendering him a non-factor in games he should be dominating on the defensive end.

Last season, Len’s third in the NBA, was by far his best statistical season in many categories. Playing roughly the same minutes as the year before (23 vs. 22 minutes per game), the 7’1”, 260 lb. Len set career highs in points per game (9.0), rebounds (7.6), assists (1.2) and free throws (3.1), while reducing his fouls per game to 2.9 in a career high 78 games.

Len was one of only nine players to average at least 13 points, 10 rebounds after the All-Star break last season, joining luminaries Andre Drummond, Anthony Davis, DeAndre Jordan, Demarcus Cousins, Hassan Whiteside, Karl-Anthony Towns, Paul Millsap and Pau Gasol among the most productive big men in the league.

But pulling back a layer or two tells a different story.

Len also converted a career worst shooting percentage of 42.3% - almost the worst FG% in league history for a 7-footer - while on defense he blocked less than a shot per game (0.8) and allowing a higher shooting percentage to his opponent than the year before. Len allowed opponents to shoot almost 60% within 6 feet of the rim (only 1.5% below their average) last year after allowing just 53.1% the year before. Some of that could be attributed to the Suns awful defense in general, as Tyson Chandler experienced a similar regression on rim defense and block rate.

More concerning, though, has to be Len’s hot/cold tendencies.

After posting 10 consecutive 10+ rebound games from 2/27 - 3/17, including 8 double-doubles, Len grabbed 10+ rebounds in only 3 of his next 14 games to finish the season on a sour note.

Right in the middle of that 14-game stretch, Len followed up a strong back-to-back double-double while making 15 of 25 shots with a weak back-to-back where he missed 17 of his 18 shots and grabbed 14 rebounds total.

His up and down play, and awful shooting percentage despite having the requisite skills to succeed, has many scratching their heads over his future.

“The skills are there,” coach Earl Watson says. “In the game he has challenges where it’s almost like he’s moving too fast for his mind.”

The Suns coaches recognize that Len will regress if he can’t convert early in the game on offense. But they don’t think Len is alone in that regard.

“I think for everyone in the NBA it’s a confidence thing,” Watson said.

Some players have a deep well of confidence that cannot be shaken. Rookie Devin Booker, for example, also posted an incredibly bad shooting percentage while sharing the ‘top offensive option’ crown with Len in the second half. But Booker kept firing, and found new ways to deliver results every game.

Watching Booker play, you’d think he was making every shot while in reality he was missing two out of every three. Really, quite awful but you’d never know it.

In contrast, everyone in the building knew when Alex Len was having a bad game. His shoulders would slump, his hesitation would become more pronounced, and he’d allow himself to disappear on defense.

“It’s not basketball,” Watson said about what’s holding Len back. “The skills are there. Teaching with Alex Len is easy. He’s gonna do the work. So we have to love and nurture him through his progression.”

I often said last year that Len is his own opponent. When he’s right, he can be one of the best big men in the whole game of basketball. But when he’s doubting himself, he’s terrible.

Watson thinks he knows the answer.

“It’s pulling Alex Len off the side and telling him truly how much we love him and appreciate him as a person not just a player,” he said. “And that we believe in him and have full confidence in him.”

Watson’s love and nurture talk might make some of us a bit uncomfortable and ready to wave the BS flag, but confidence is truly a difference maker in all of us. How a coach instills confidence in a player is key to success.

Remember when the Suns had a young Slovenian who couldn’t even dribble the ball down court under pressure as a rookie? Some called him Goran Tragic. Others called him the worst player in the NBA. He couldn’t make a shot, couldn’t run the offense. His first coach, Terry Porter, buried him on the bench.

But when Alvin Gentry took over the Suns at the All-Star break in 2009, he famously bragged that his first order of business was telling Goran Dragic to stop looking at the bench when he made a mistake, and to just move on to the next play. He encouraged Dragic to fight through adversity, and that the coaching staff believed in him.

That’s the same thing Watson is doing. It’s just that Gentry wasn’t as flowery with the rhetoric.

“When you get out there we don’t want you to second-guess yourself because you missed the shot,” Watson said of what he tells Len. “Because no matter what we love you. Whether you go out there and average 20 and 10, or 12 and 12 or have a rough game, we’re going to high five you.”

Dragic was 22 his rookie season, just as Alex Len was 22 last year. It may have been Len’s third NBA season, but only his second healthy year.

“We know one day soon if not today it’s going to click and you never have to look back on that again,” Watson says.

Rookie extension

The complicating factor in Len’s progression is that now that he’s growing out of his ankle issues and trying to find his NBA confidence, he is suddenly approaching his fourth NBA season and restricted free agency next summer.

How much is Alex Len worth on the open market?

Len may be struggling in the eyes of many, but the truth is that - as written above - he was one of only nine players to average 13/10 last spring when given big minutes. His agent will surely point to that production, plus his young age (23 next season) and prototypical size and suggest maybe he is worth huge money.

We could use this summer’s contracts to 7-footers as a barometer for Len.

  • Timofey Mozgov: $16 million/year
  • Andre Drummond (RFA): $26 million/year
  • Hassan Whiteside: $24 million/year
  • Bismack Biyombo: $18 million/year
  • Dwight Powell (RFA): $9 million/year
  • Boban Marjanovic (RFA): $7 million/year
  • Festus Ezeli: $7.5 million/year
  • Myers Leonard (RFA): $11 million/year
  • Miles Plumlee (RFA): $13 million/year
  • Tyler Zeller (RFA): $8 million/year
  • Cole Aldrich: $7.3 million/year

Which big men does Alex Len compare most favorably? You might be surprised.

As I wrote above, Len was one of only a few big men to post 13/10 last spring. Among the nine, Drummond and Whiteside got HUGE contracts while the others are already well compensated.

Is Len comparable to Drummond or Whiteside? No. Not at all. No way Alex Len’s agent can successfully argue Len is worth Drummond/Whiteside money at this stage of his career. But what if Len puts it all together next season? What if he does continue the 13/10 numbers? Does that put him over $20 million per year next summer?

More likely, Len’s top-end comparison this summer would be to fight for Biyombo/Mozgov money. One could argue that Len is a better long-term bet than either of those big men, given Len’s age and better range of offensive skills.

At the same time, the Suns would likely argue that Len compares better to Zeller, Plumlee, Leonard and Ezeli. All of them are 3-4 year veterans fighting for a regular starting role early in their careers. That comparison would put Len in the $9-13 million per year range.

Len comps

As you can see, Len fits nicely in with these guys when looking at entire careers. On a per-game basis for their entire careers, Len is second in PPG, first in RPG, first in BPG but has the worst FG% by far.

If you look only at the 2015-16 season, Len starts to distance himself from this pack.

He was clearly the most productive of all of these big men last year. Their seasons netted them contracts ranging from $7.5 million (Ezeli, who is a huge injury risk) to $13 million (Miles Plumlee, the worst of this lot!).

Len’s agent will argue that Len is younger than any of them - Leonard is a year older than Len, while Plumlee and Zeller were four years older - so Len’s future is much brighter.

And if Len can square away some kind of consistent offense, he might outpace not only these guys but also Biyombo and Mozgov by next summer.

The Suns should try to lock Len up to a contract extension somewhere south of $15 million per year this fall, while they have the chance and Len hasn’t reached his full potential. The Bucks and Blazers and Celtics did that, so the Suns should make that leap as well.

I’d guess an offer in the $12-14 million per year range on 4-year extension would be a good deal for both sides.

But Len’s camp might want to hold off one more year and see how the RFA market works. And if Len really does find his total game this next season, that price tag could increase by 50%. Or more.

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