Alex Len hasn’t really been able to participate in many of the pre-draft workouts that send college players stock through the roof, so scouts are beginning to pick away at his game in hopes of getting a gauge on his potential. Len’s recent comments in the media about being the “best player in this draft” in ten years is tough talk; it’s a way to implant his toughness into the minds of evaluators without being able to show them first-hand. But all that is, is talk.
Len has been pegged as a lottery pick since the U18 European Championships, way before he stepped foot onto the Comcast Center court. I figured it’d be as good a place as ever to start looking at Len’s abilities, given the NBA players he went up against as a teenager and that’s where all the hype began.
Len played in nine games for the Ukranians, averaging 16 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 4.3 blocks while shooting 47% over that time period. By comparison, two hyped up players (one in the NBA and one in this draft), Jonas Valanciunas and Rudy Gobert, averaged 19 points and 13 rebounds and 9.2 points and 9 rebounds per game, respectively. By looking at just his overall statistics you’d presume that Len, at the time, was a lot more like Valanciunas than Gobert. So for that, I think it’s better that you look at their head-t0-head comparisons.
Against Valanciunas, Len got more or less whipped. He only played 16 minutes and scored 6 points and grabbed two boards. Valanciunas, meanwhile, continued his dominance with 16 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks. Jonas is very clearly a good NBA player, averaging around 11 points in the last month of the NBA season, but he is a year older than Len and much has changed since then. But in their first head-to-head, it wasn’t really close, and was only the second time he was held to single digit points the entire European Championship tournament.
But that was back in 2010, and three years later Len is a completely different player. To get a good look at Len as an NBA prospect, it’s even more important to understand his progression and development as a player, which includes analyzing those three years. At the time, Len was a 7’1, 220 lb. boy who couldn’t speak English. By the time he left college park, Len added significant bulk, ending up at 255 lbs. He transformed from a boy to man during the offseason between his freshman and sophomore year, displaying a drive to get better that will serve him greatly in the future.
His freshman year was like most seven-foot big men; that is to say, it was riddled with inconsistency. Len missed his first ten games due to eligibility issues, and had three games to get ready before ACC play. He reached double figures six times the entire season, and only three times during ACC play. Still, Len was efficient, blocked two shots per game, and showed a good (not great) ability to rebound. He also proved he was a competent face-up defender, as the Terps defensive stats while he was on the floor went through the roof.
His sophomore season was similar to his freshman year in that it was clear Len still looked uncomfortable and inconsistent at times, but he also showed flashes of the ability to take over games. His first matchup of the year, on a national stage against Nerlens Noel, was evidence of that: 23 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 blocks. Yes, he was inconsistent, but with young big men, scouts look for a few things: the ability to get better, take over games, and evidence that they haven’t hit their ceilings. Len accomplished all three of those things last year, and he did it without a point guard, which is a position that tends to bring out the very best in big men.
Len has a still-developing skill level that rivals some very good big men. Pau Gasol’s name gets thrown around, because they are both smooth, huge, athletes who have a solid face-up game. I think that’s absurd, mind you, because Pau was much better as a rookie than Len will ever be. Others look at Enes Kanter, a young European big who needs more years to develop. That’s also off-base; Len is more athletic than Kanter by far.
A lot of analysts project him with other European players of the same age, but that’s not fair for Len. They mostly do it because he’s white and somewhat skinny, with a finesse game. Len doesn’t have an entirely European game to him; for starters, he already has two years of American basketball under his belt. He also doesn’t mind contact down low, and while he may not initiate it all the time, he never shies away from it. He has a known mean streak, and actually gets fired up during games, and more importantly (as I said before), shows a clear drive to get better. Oh, and he likes to dunk.
When you compare him to whatever European you can throw out there, it’s an injustice to him unless it’s actually predicated on their games and not their faces. Notice that he is not often compared to someone like Roy Hibbert. Hibbert may be an All-Star center now, but from his freshman through senior year, he was a questionable college prospect. He didn’t run the floor well, didn’t have a complete post-game, and still isn’t a great rebounder for his size. To suggest that anyone knew, coming out of college, that Roy would be an All-Star someday is revisionist history. There were tons of questions upon his arrival into the NBA as to whether or not his game would transition to the NBA. So I’m suggesting that as prospects, not so much in their respective games, the two are similar.
Len is probably a better draft prospect than Roy Hibbert as a sophomore and junior. Want to compare them as prospects? Go right ahead here. It’s very similar, except that Len runs the floor better, is considered to have a better offensive game, and is in much better condition. But make no mistake, Len isn’t Roy Hibbert. He’ll never be that bruiser down low, nor will he likely on a night-to-night basis monster jam over opposing big men and impose his will at a Pau Gasol-type level.
But Len is a very good prospect as an NBA center. If he polishes that face-up game even more, then the worst case scenario is a watered down Brook Lopez. A guy who doesn’t score like Brook, but rebounds similarly and has more upside as a defender. A 10 point, 8 rebound a night guy who can give you some blocks, as well. Or he’s a better offensive Kosta Kofous, who has been in the league for about five years and just last year averaged eight points and six rebounds per game. Kofous was a better college player, to be sure, but Len has a lot more going for him that Kofous in terms of next-level skills.
To say that Len will be someone like Nikoloz Tskitishvili is ridiculous. That’s one of the biggest busts of all time in the NBA, and he played four years in the NBA before getting bounced. Even if you’re hard pressed to compare him to a European bust, then give him the decency of saying Darko Milicic. And quite frankly, most everyone thinks Len will be a lot better than him, too. So if you want to say that Len’s projection is a ten year veteran who didn’t live up to expectations but had a decent career, then go ahead and be my guest.
I’m sticking with something much better.