With restricted free agency on the horizon, the 2016-17 campaign could prove to be a lucrative one for Alex Len. Fresh off of a brow-raising stretch as last season ventured down through the depths of hell, Len now finds himself within a potentially crowded frontcourt thanks to the arrivals of Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss. Bender is being profiled as more of a three, but there is a loud contingency holding out hope that he will get some opportunity to reign terror from the four or even five spot.
Although both Chriss and Bender are young and raw, the admiration from the coaching staff is real, and their minutes could steadily increase if their play justifies it in the early going.
Len, who just turned 23 years old in June himself, will have to finagle his way through this possibility by continuing to build on the foundation he showcased towards the end of last season. Seemingly out of nowhere, Len put up monster numbers against real opponents — boasting an (at times) feathery outside touch, a controlled post game and an encouraging bark on the boards.
The first thing that jumps out to a casual observer about Len’s game is just how freaking big and lengthy the dude is. He hasn’t yet found his way as a consistent rim protector — players are shooting 59 percent on shots within 6 feet of the rim with Len defending per NBA.com, which is right about league average — but there are times when it looks like he is piecing together how to use his verticality to his advantage.
There is no reason why Len shouldn’t be able to stifle drives like this on a more consistent basis. An increase in core strength to absorb blows certainly helps, but his length and above average mobility for his size screams a skill set for a sufficient rim protector. I wouldn’t be surprised if that 59 percent figure goes down as time goes on.
The pseudo tank job the Suns embarked on during the dog days of March and April featured Len playing as the nominal four alongside Tyson Chandler. This development was grotesque to watch in the aggregate and not sustainable when it comes to actually winning basketball games, but there is no doubt that it assisted in rounding out the edges on Len’s game.
Playing the four requires more malleability than ever before, and Len was required to contend with quicker, more skilled players on defense, as well as learn the ropes of making plays in tight spaces on offense. The floor spacing with Len and Chandler sharing time in the frontcourt was nonexistent at best, with defenders shading off of both big men to contend with more dangerous threats on the outside.
Len combated this style of defense by taking more mid-range shots and occasionally getting hot enough to burn teams. He shot a forgettable 34 percent (46 of 137) on shots between 15-19 feet, per NBA.com, but his stroke is not broken and could lead to more shots splashing down in the future.
The games where his outside shot was falling always proved to be his most successful because it would open up a better-than-expected “pump and go” arsenal to create for himself or teammates.
Len garners the attention of four defenders on that play, and still finds a way to make room for a nifty dump pass for a Chandler flush. Again: Playing Len and Chandler together under high-low principles is not exactly the most ideal offensive structure, but seeing Len flash that kind of skill is the reason why you try it out when the team is on the path to a top five pick.
An area where Len really has the Suns’ coaches, fans and front office salivating is his potential to be a offensive fulcrum in the post. He is still not a consistent force by any means — his 42 percent shooting percentage is a good indication of that -- but man are there times where he looks like an absolute load to deal with.
Look at that footwork again: Everything is in control, sports a nice pace and there is a sense that Len knows exactly what he wants to do to get to his spot. And once he gets there, he can leverage his sheer size and plop a simple hook over whoever is guarding him. The poor Magic defender looks like ten-year-old me trying to defend my dad in pool basketball.
Much like how a jump shot can open up driving lanes for a big man, a strong post game can lead to avenues for cutters through the backdoor. Len is a better passer than he gets credit for, and there are little inklings here and there that make you mutter a faint wow to yourself when you go back and watch the tape.
With Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight bearing the brunt of the offensive burden when the starters get their run, Len could utilize an improved post game to bully lesser bigs and have the second unit offense run through him (if Devin Booker is having an off night) from time to time.
The Pacers (I assume) brought in Al Jefferson to play that role next season, and Enes Kanter has feasted on the boards while coming off of the bench in Oklahoma City. If Len embraces such a role, like really takes pride in it, he could have a similar kind of impact for Phoenix next season.
Lastly, it should go without saying that Len could be a menace on the glass if he finds his inner Energizer Bunny and always has his motor running. His per 36 numbers check out (11.7 boards per), and those lengthy limbs of his are difficult to contend with on 50/50 balls.
Four Magic players are within the vicinity of the Len there, including the bouncy Aaron Gordon and girth-driven Nikola Vucevic, who for all of his defensive warts, is excellent at getting a body on his man and rebounding the ball. Constant activity tends to lead to positive things when you are 7 feet tall.
As I mentioned before, the 2016-17 season will be an important one for Len with restricted free agency and another cap spike looming. Teams will be entranced by his youth, and a skill set that pops when everything is working in fluidity. It will be intriguing to see how Coach Watson elects to use his minutes (however many he is given), and whether or not Len grows antsy/frustrated with the number of bodies impeding his growth.
Look hard, and there is a potential starting center in Len. It remains to be seen if that fate will come to fruition in Phoenix or elsewhere.
*All videos that appear in this article are snippets from the "FreeDawkins" YouTube page. You can watch Len and other player's highlights videos here.