“It was a frustrating summer.”
Those were the first words out of Alex Len’s mouth on Media Day when asked about how things played out with his contract situation. Len did not receive any offers as a restricted free agent this summer, and settled for a one-year $4.2 million contract with the Suns.
The Suns chose Len with the 5th overall pick in the 2013 draft based on his untapped talent, despite mediocre production in two seasons at Maryland after coming over from the Ukraine.
At Maryland, Len did not make any All-Conference teams, averaging just 11.9 points and 7.8 rebounds as a sophomore, but the 7-foot former gymnast flashed a ton of potential as a mobile big man able to defend and score in the post and on the perimeter.
Going into the draft, Len was a consensus top-5 pick among draft experts and the vaunted DraftExpress.com even had him #1 overall on draft day. So it’s not like the Suns overdrafted Len.
Unfortunately, four NBA seasons later, Len is still trying to hone those skills. He’s been a good defensive rebounder, but his other skills remain a major work in progress. More disappointing than his erratic offense, in my opinion, is that he has not developed into a major defensive threat. Len’s quickness and length (7’3” wingspan) should allow him to be a stopper in the restricted area.
As a restricted free agent, Len received no offers from the Suns nor did any of the other 29 teams make a big enough offer to accept and sign on the dotted line. Like Nerlens Noel, drafted two spots after Len in 2013, he accepted the $4.2 million qualifying offer to play one more season in Phoenix before becoming an unrestricted free agent in July 2018.
“I had no expectations,” he said of free agency. “I kinda had a down year last year. So going into the summer was like, let’s see what other teams have to offer. And if my expectations aren’t met by the offer, come back for another year. So that’s what happened.”
He officially signed the Suns’ $4.2 million contract on Sunday, one day before the team left for training camp in Flagstaff.
“But I feel like it worked out perfect,” he said. “I got a lot of great feedback from other teams about my value, about what I need to do and show this season.”
Len also now has some control over his situation. By signing the one-year qualifying offer, Len gets the right to approve or decline any trade this season. He’s unlikely to accept any trades, but if he IS traded he would lose his Bird Rights which means his team could not use a cap exception larger than the league minimum to retain him. He’d have to be signed using cap room, which only a handful of teams possess next summer.
Fellow center Tyson Chandler was sympathetic to Len’s frustrations.
“He has to take all of this as motivation,” Chandler said. “He has to take it as motivation and show everybody that he’s a player in this league. You can never hold onto the negatives. You gotta look at the positives, and the positive is that he is in this league, and he has the opportunity to showcase his talent.”
Len and Noel were just a year too late to the free agency party. A year after guys like Timofey Mozgov and Ian Mahinmi signed contracts for $16-18 million per year, younger and arguably even more talented young big men in Len and Noel were stuck taking their team’s one-year qualifying offer.
Part of that is restricted free agency. Mozgov and Mahinmi were unrestricted, so the interested team did not have to worry about anyone matching their offer, while any contract to Len or Noel could have been matched.
But mostly, it was the availability of discretionary funds. Teams were flush with cash in the summer of 2016, while the summer of 2017 was decidedly poorer.
Now Len gets an unexpected boost in opportunity with the season-threatening injury to fellow center Alan Williams, who the Suns DID re-sign for $5 million this season (the two following seasons are non-guaranteed).
“You don’t ever wish injuries on another player,” Len replied when I asked about his sudden playing time boon. “Going into camp I wanted to fight for the starting position, so that’s what I was going to do this training camp anyway.”
Len still has no expectations.
“I can’t control that stuff, like how many minutes I get,” he said. “I just got to play as hard as I can, and the rest is gonna take care of itself.
“I feel more confident going into this year than last year. Teams let me know where my value is, so I feel better this year.”
I’m rooting for Alex to have a good season and earn that big contract, or at least a long-term contract with a team that can use his skills and give him a chance to succeed.
Whether that’s in Phoenix or somewhere else.