Checklist for No. 5 NBA Draft Pick Alex Len to Thrive with Phoenix Suns

Simon Cherin-GordonContributor IIIJuly 4, 2013

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 27:  Alex Len of Maryland walks towards the stage after Len was drafted #5 overall in the first round by the Phoenix Suns during the 2013 NBA Draft at Barclays Center on June 27, 2013 in in the Brooklyn Borough of New York City.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Alex Len, the No. 5 overall NBA draft pick, was arguably in the best spot to be in during the 2013 NBA draft. 

With five-to-six prospects that were clearly better than the field, yet hardly distinguishable from one another in terms of value, the team picking fifth—the Phoenix Suns as it were—was in as good a position to land a premier player as the team picking first. 

Every general manager in the league would tell you that the No. 1 pick is always ideal, but if Anthony Bennett doesn't work out, the Cleveland Cavaliers, GM Chris Grant and Bennett himself will be heavily criticized.

The Suns, GM Ryan McDonough and No. 5 pick Alex Len will not face that kind of scrutiny.

By no means will Len's rookie season be pressure-free. Many expected him to go No. 1 and that pre-draft hype will follow him regardless of where he was actually taken. 

He was taken over Nerlens Noel and Ben McLemore, two players who surprisingly fell to Phoenix. He'll be compared to them, especially Noel, as they are both centers.

He's also the top pick for one of the worst teams in the NBA, and thus, instantly receives franchise-player expectations.

Len should be up for the challenge. The Ukrainian-born center faced the pressure of coming over to the United States from the Ukraine to play Big East basketball. 

While he struggled his freshman season while adjusting to the strength element of the college game, he made huge strides as a sophomore. The NBA will certainly present new physical challenges, but Len has the mindset and life experience to handle the immediate pressure.

Now, about those physical challenges. Len is 7'1" and weighs 255 pounds. Hardly anyone has come into the league at age 20 with a body like that. 

On top of that, Len has the athletic ability—both in transition and on the defensive end—that all big men need in today's NBA.

The issue is his ankle. After suffering a stress fracture during the latter stages of his sophomore season (stress fractures are cumulative and don't happen at one exact moment), Len underwent surgery in late April.

While he's expected to be ready for training camp and certainly for the regular season, lower-body injuries can haunt the careers of big men. Playing 82 games a season is grueling for anyone, but extremely large bodies often cannot take it.

Needless to say, it's disturbing that Len is entering the league with an already-existing injury history.

Of course, speculating how a player's body will hold up is foolish, particularly for someone like me (as I'm someone who isn't a medical professional, as in every sportswriter).

The fact is that Len, if healthy, appears destined to be both an immediate contributor and a long-term starter. If he's on the court, he's as "safe" a pick as there ever is in the NBA draft.

His sheer size will earn him immediate minutes for Phoenix. Whether incumbent center Marcin Gortat is traded or not, Len will be featured in the rotation right away as the team's biggest player. 

Athleticism, however, is the key for all big men now. If you have trouble moving laterally or can't keep up in a high-tempo game, opposing teams will put out smaller, quicker lineups and run these immobile bigs off the court.

Len has this athletic ability, which means he's all but guaranteed to have a better rookie season than 95 percent of first-year centers.

Len also has the skill to be a factor offensively. He developed his inside game tremendously at Maryland, coming to the school as a long-winged (7'3" wingspan) defensive asset and leaving as a two-way force.

He'll still need to get stronger to be a dominant low-post scorer in the NBA, but he already has more post moves than most his age, and his athletic ability, along with the right coaching, creates the potential for a power-finesse combination; an Al Jefferson, Greg Monroe-type.

Len doesn't appear to have much all-star, franchise-player potential. He doesn't have the deadly mid-range shot or undeniable strength to become a dominant scorer, and while he can block shots and rebound well, he doesn't have the off-the-charts vertical game or defensive instincts to become an all-NBA defender.

While Phoenix would have to be thrilled if they drafted the next Greg Monroe in Len, it did pass on Noel, who could become the next great defensive center, joining the ranks of Roy Hibbert, Marc Gasol and Joakim Noah.

This naturally begs the question: Why did a team in such dire need of a game-changing star choose the guy with a relatively low-ceiling?

Obviously, McDonough and the Suns' front office are aware of their need for a star and are aware of Len's limited upside. Thus, the thinking appears to be that Phoenix is very confident that Len will become a solid starting center. 

His low-ceiling comes with a high-floor, or so Phoenix believes. 

This sets some considerable standards for Len to live up to. Not being asked to be a star creates the assumption that you're going to be very solid and contribute early on.

For Len's rookie season to warrant being called a success, he'll have to do no less than make the all-rookie first team. He was the first center taken (we'll call Cody Zeller a power forward for now) in the draft and will be given as much opportunity to play and produce as any other rookie.

There will likely be a couple all-star caliber players to evolve out of the 2013 draft class, and so, Len will have to quickly establish himself as a quality NBA big man to avoid looking like a bust.

As his career moves forward, however, the expectations should plateau. If Len simply stays healthy and can establish himself as a starting center, he'll have accomplished more than most young bigs—even the one's taken in the top 10. 

If Len becomes a guy who could start for the majority of teams in the NBA; someone who's good enough to shut down opposing bigs, grab 9-10 rebounds a night and score consistently and efficiently, his selection will be completely justified.

However, the way we view Phoenix's decision to select Len may ultimately be dictated by how Noel and McLemore's careers end up.