Can Alex Len Bounce Back with Phoenix Suns Next Season?

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Can Alex Len Bounce Back with Phoenix Suns Next Season?
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

For the fifth overall pick of the 2013 NBA Draft, Phoenix Suns center Alex Len had a relatively underwhelming rookie season.

The 7'1" Ukrainian big man played in only 42 games, and averaged 2.0 points and 2.4 rebounds in 8.6 minutes per game. His player efficiency rating was a mere 7.3 (league average is approximately 15), and he actually contributed negative offense win shares.

But despite those dismal numbers, Len was able to show flashes of potential throughout the season. And because of those promising moments, as well as the fact that NBA centers simply take longer to develop, there is no reason why Alex Len can't bounce back with the Suns either immediately next season or within a few years. 

First of all, Len's health must be considered in examining his rookie season. Len underwent surgery on his right ankle back in July, as the Suns' medical staff identified the beginnings of a stress fracture.

Before that, Len had had another operation on his left ankle in May that was expected to keep him out for 4-6 months. 

So, while fellow 2013 first-round pick and teammate Archie Goodwin was flourishing in the summer league, Alex Len was still recovering from ankle surgery. And therefore it makes sense that he would have a tougher transition to the NBA, especially because in addition to his health he was one of the younger rookies in his class, having just turned 20 by draft night. 

Those ankle issues kept Len out of the rotation for the start of the season, and by the end of 2013 he had made only four appearances. When he did finally log some minutes in January and February, he struggled.

But things started to pick up for Len near the end of the season. In 14 games in March he shot 50 percent from the field while putting up 10.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per 36 minutes, per Basketball-Reference. He even started three times with Miles Plumlee recovering from an injury. 

The video above shows footage of Len performing post moves, shooting jump shots, rebounding the ball on the offensive glass and blocking shots. But keep in mind that the video is a reflection of what he is at his best, not what can be expected of him on a consistent basis at this point.

Still, some of the highlights are promising. Unlike Plumlee, Len does not have an impressive vertical to jump for alley-oops. He plays on the ground (another likely result of the ankle surgeries) and uses his height as his greatest advantage. 

He's able to finish strong on some of those plays (despite his lack of strength compared to most NBA centers), and shows nice touch on a mid-range jump shot. His frame can also be described as lanky, and he uses that superior height and wingspan to keep possessions alive on offense by tapping the ball back to his teammates. 

Len has the potential to be a great rebounder and defender. He's also quite mobile, which is always a plus for an up-tempo team, even if he does look a bit awkward in his movements. With the continued development of a set of post moves as well as a decent mid-range shot, Len could be a versatile offensive player. 

His greatest priority right now should be adding strength, as he was pushed around by other big men throughout his rookie season. But that's a problem that most 20-year-olds face and should not particularly worry fans or the organization.

Overall, having patience will be most important for Suns fans. Despite his rookie statistics, I believe that Len is still a future starting center in the NBA. Unfortunately, centers take more time to develop.  

To prove that point, I looked at the 64 active NBA players who have made at least one All-Star appearance and researched how long it took each one to be selected. Though the All-Star voting system is flawed, it can be assumed that a player making his first appearance is beginning to enter his prime and is gaining "elite" status across the league. 

Data was broken up by position. Because there were so many big men as opposed to the other positions, there are categories for both "Center" as well as "Power Forward/Center."

This is an important distinction. Len, a 7'1" player, will likely be a pure center for his entire career. Joakim Noah or Dwight Howard are examples of players who are almost exclusively centers. But others such as Chris Bosh or Pau Gasol have been hybrids throughout their careers and thus fall into a different category. 

Online Graphing

As the graph shows, there is almost no difference between point guards, shooting guards, small forwards or even power forward/center hybrids. Most elite players will make their first All-Star appearance in their fourth or fifth year, although there are a few outliers (Gerald Wallace and Chauncey Billups took nine years, for example). 

However, there is a notable increase in the time it takes for pure centers to develop. In fact, only Dwight Howard was able to make his first All-Star appearance within three years. Brook Lopez (five years), Joakim Noah (six years) and Chris Kaman (seven years) are more realistic, common scenarios. 

To expect Len to produce All-Star-caliber numbers may be too optimistic, though not entirely out of the realm of possibility. Still, it may take him longer to reach his prime than it takes the average guard or forward, so the organization must be patient.

After all, the Suns already gave up on one center prospect too soon within the past few years: Robin Lopez.

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

By his fourth and final year with Phoenix, Lopez was entirely a backup to Marcin Gortat. The franchise no longer attempted to start him and cut his playing time to just 14 minutes per game.

Since then, Lopez has started all 82 games in two consecutive seasons for two different teams. In those two seasons combined he has put up 14 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per 36 minutes while shooting 54 percent from the field. The Suns could certainly have used that rebounding and defense. 

It's true that Lopez had a limited opportunity to develop in Phoenix with Gortat as the starting center. Perhaps he would never have reached his full potential in the desert. 

What is Alex Len's ceiling?

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But by the end of his stint with the Suns, fans constantly criticized Lopez, and he was considered by many to be a wasted first-round pick. Now, two years later, there is obviously evidence to show that that couldn't be further from the truth and that Lopez is now one of the more productive and efficient centers in the NBA.

Hopefully the same thing won't happen with Alex Len. He can bounce back with the Suns, but it may not be immediately next season. It could be two, three or even four years from now. As long as he shows gradual improvement and always makes an effort to get better, fans should only be excited about Len's promise. 

 

Stats and information courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

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