Feb 16, 2013; College Park, MD, USA; Maryland Terrapins center Alex Len (25) shoots a free throw against the Duke Blue Devils at the Comcast Center. Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports
Let me start off by saying this: I am an Alex Len apologist.
I am not particularly huge on delving into next year’s season of basketball before this year’s has even ended, but with the NBA draft slowly approaching and recent speculation on Twitter about the status of Alex Len next season, it’s probably worth discussing at this point. Should he stay? Should he go? What happens to Maryland either way? What do NBA scouts see in him that we don’t?
Len is a seven foot big man who runs the floor well and has barely scratched the surface of his potential, which is why most NBA scouts tend to drool over him anytime he is on the floor. Needless to say, Len is going to have some very big options to consider at the end of the year between leaving for the NBA and staying in College Park to continue with the rebuild. Stuck in the middle of this are Maryland fans who vary from being completely enamored with his play to becoming maddeningly frustrated by his ineptitude at times on the court. Ah, the life of a fan.
There are plenty of Terrapin fans that are understandably disgruntled with Alex Len at times. There are games where he simply doesn’t deliver the way a superstar lottery pick is expected to; against Boston College, Len managed a meager four points and struggled to even recognize double-teams. He is on and off, and there are a lot of holes in his game that can only be addressed with time, training, and more experience playing basketball. Most every Maryland fan agrees that another year of college would do a lot of good for not just his game, but for the Terrapins as well. His fouling out more recently against Georgia Tech after “only” scoring 13 points and grabbing 9 rebounds, brought forth that “soft” label yet again.
Unfortunately, as fans, people are selfish in their presumptions. We expect the world out of players, and rarely consider extenuating circumstances in our lust for perfect play and unlimited potential reached. We want Alex Len to play like a superstar, averaging Shaquille O’Neal-like numbers over his college career and laying into opponents so badly that no other team stands a chance at winning. We see glimpses of that potential during games like Kentucky, and wonder how much more he could possibly do when he destroys Mason Plumlee’s credibility as a center. All those instances make fans salivate and feed the urge to demand more and more out of a player. When they aren’t perfect? Fans have no sympathy.
Before we speculate on what Len should be doing with his life, consider a brief history of his life to this point. He grew up in Ukraine — a country that only recently became a democracy — as a gymnast, before deciding to play basketball full-time given his height. I am uncertain about his family’s monetary well being, but I do know that Len was rail-thin when he came to College Park, weighing less than most NBA shooting guards. Speaking of his entrance into College Park (and the United States), he was recruited by the great Gary Williams, becoming accustomed to a new country via a great coach and expecting to play for him. We all know that Gary retired prior to Len playing basketball at Maryland, but the kid stayed along when Mark Turgeon was hired and remained loyal to Maryland. Len stepped onto a college campus knowing virtually nobody and having a support system that consisted of a rabid fan base that didn’t speak his language and expected immediate results. Nothing but perfection would sate an appetite like that.
Len didn’t speak English, got a new coach, weighed virtually nothing, had to become accustomed to the American style of basketball, take collegiate level courses, and understand American culture at the same time. Add in the fact that he also had to play basketball extremely well to live up to his anticipated hype heading into the season in one of the toughest basketball conferences in the nation, and you can understand why I would be remiss to critique Alex Len for being soft before factoring in how much strength it takes to not break under all that pressure. The kid has not had the hardest life ever, but he has not lived even remotely the same one as most players in college basketball. Some kids worry about being able to keep up with academic standards, and can take a short visit home to see their relatives, friends and family for support when they struggle. Flying across an ocean on the weekends isn’t something Len can afford to do, and he certainly can’t drive home like most 19 year old kids can in college. Len is an island.
As a basketball player, I think NBA scouts openly acknowledge that Len has work to do; he is a face-up center who doesn’t have the best court awareness. He struggles with double-teams, he doesn’t block as many shots as Nerlens Noel, and he has a hard time initiating contact on the block. His rebounding numbers, even, are far from the greatest in the nation despite towering over most opponents. There are a countless number of problems with his game, and a lot of them on the offensive end are amplified by the fact that he hasn’t had a point guard all season long. I think NBA scouts recognize that fact as well.
Big men thrive with great point guard play, and Alex Len has not been afforded even remotely that opportunity. Terrell Stoglin may have been invited to the Toronto Raptors NBA Summer League team, but Dwight Howard might actually be considered a better facilitator than him. This year he gets Pe’Shon Howard, Nick Faust, and Seth Allen to get him the ball, and neither one is even close to being a desired option at point guard. It’s why Mark Turgeon has started all three of them at one point this season. Len does not have the luxury of being found in the paint for easy buckets. He gets the ball ten feet away from the basket, and that isn’t really his game. Again, NBA scouts recognize that with a solid player getting Len the ball, there’s a good chance he will be a lot better. In College Park, that may not even happen next year.
His flaws, many though they may be, aren’t enough to detract most NBA teams from taking him with one of the lottery picks. Maryland fans can be as frustrated as they want in not seeing his potential on a nightly basis, but the fact remains that Alex Len makes the Terrapins much, much, better. When he is double-teamed, shooters are left open; his size clogs the paint so much that the Terrapins are one of the best low post defending teams in the nation. The Terrapins are amazing at rebounding, and play some truly incredible defense at times thanks to a team that understand help side defending pretty well and having a center that doesn’t get into foul trouble too often. All of that is the Len effect. Even when it isn’t seen all the time, Len makes most players around him look better than they are.
Consider what Len has to look forward to if he remains in college. He has another year without a savvy point guard to get him the ball in his places and make him finally look better. He gets a fan base that repeatedly calls him a “soft European” and seems at times to want him out rather than having him remain in the fold. He gets to look at players like Nerlens Noel, someone he summarily dominated in their only meeting, go down with devastating knee injuries that put their draft stock in doubt. He potentially loses out on millions of dollars and accommodations that could make his life (and his family’s life at home) more comfortable in favor of casting uncertainty on his position in the NBA draft. Len stays, and it’s a stone-cold lock that he is risking a lot.
The pro if he stays? He gets to play for a Maryland team that may not make the tournament this year in hopes of actually getting to the NCAA tournament next year and compete for a national championship. Some will say that he gets Roddy Peters, a freshman phenom point guard who could potentially express that potential to be ultra dominant at the center position. While that may be true, Peters will be a young kid who will have not played for over a year only to be handed the keys to a team. Peters or Ricky Rubio? Hmm. That’s it, unfortunately. I love Maryland, and there is something to be said about a player who remains in college to try and help his team reach their potential during his career there. It’s why I love Greivis Vasquez, and why I was disappointed in Steve Francis. But that is from a fan’s perspective. We want to keep all the talent we have for as long as we can, and never consider what is best for the player’s future well-being. It’s understandable, but it isn’t the best decision.
What happens if he leaves? Maryland gets to feel what it’s like to not have a massive big man down low. Teams look for competent centers for years and years and never find them. They adjust, or they struggle, but there is nothing like having a seven footer down low who, even at his worst, demands constant attention on the court. The Terrapins had tons of potential when Jordan Williams stepped onto the basketball court, and in many ways his career was similar to Len’s in that they both lacked a point guard to serve them the ball all the time. His presence changed numerous games, and it made Maryland better, but they never got the chance to capitalize on it.
The Terps still have two big guys in Charles Mitchell and Shaq Cleare who would absorb a whole lot of minutes if Len leaves (along with James Padgett). The duo would probably fill in admirably as well, as they complement one another relatively well; Mitchell rebounds, Cleare scores. They would have numerous guards to shoot the ball, and a swingman in Dez Wells who, despite all his lumps in handling the ball, is still potentially a game-changer if he figures it all out. In short, Maryland will probably be just fine if Alex Len leaves (albeit thin on the front line), but it would be very hard to suggest that the team gets better with his departure.
As I said before, I am an Alex Len apologist. Whether he stays or leaves, Maryland is still slowly becoming a powerful program. But what should he be doing with his life? Well, for me, that’s simple: if he has assurances of being drafted in the top ten, he should say goodbye to College Park. As a fan, I want him to stay because of how good he is for the program, but I know that is likely unreasonable because he is an NBA center. Yes, he has his issues, but anyone suggesting he will never be a viable option as an NBA center at 19 years old is just being selfish. For his family, for his financial well-being, and for the improvement of his play, he should leave for the NBA in search of a good point guard. Maryland will be fine, but in the meantime the Terrapins should be thanking the kid for his service, rather than critiquing him incessantly.