Maryland Basketball: Alex Len thriving in new role

Mar 3, 2016; Miami, FL, USA; Phoenix Suns center Alex Len (21) dunks the ball against the Miami Heat during the first half at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 3, 2016; Miami, FL, USA; Phoenix Suns center Alex Len (21) dunks the ball against the Miami Heat during the first half at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /

The Phoenix Suns needed to unload Markieff Morris.

Since Morris was dealt to Washington, Alex Len has thrived in his new starting role.

The 2015-16 season was supposed to be Len’s year to break out. However, the Suns signed free agent center Tyson Chandler to a four-year contract in the summer and that threw a wrench into Len’s playing time.

With Chandler and Morris in the fold, obviously those two were penciled as Phoenix’s two starting bigs. Len did have success coming off the bench and received adequate playing time.

But when Morris was dealt to the Wizards on Feb. 19, it was a blessing for Len.

Since taking over as a starter after the Morris trade, the former Maryland star is averaging 14.2 points-per-game to go along with 10.9 rebounds-per-game. During those 19 games, Len has recorded 10 double-doubles and has reached the 20-point plateau on four occasions.

When Len came over to the United States after playing professionally in Ukraine, he was an extremely raw prospect and a relative unknown.

Coach Mark Turgeon had a history of successfully developing big men from his days at Texas A&M. He transformed a very raw DeAndre Jordan into an NBA draft pick.

Even though he was still adjusting to the American game, Len still averaged six ppg and 5.4 rpg for a very shorthanded Maryland team. He seemed to be a little unsure of himself at times offensively, but did some flashes.

As a sophomore, Len showed why he was labeled as a potential lottery pick from the moment he stepped on campus. In Maryland’s 2012-13 season opener against Kentucky, the future Phoenix Sun scored 23 points (10-of-18) and grabbed 12 rebounds in a 72-69 Terps loss.

Once Len got settled in, it was pretty clear that this kid was going to be a star. For example, fast forward to the 2:24 mark in the above video and you’ll see Len alter a Nerlens Noel shot in the lane. After the Terps grab the rebound, Len runs the floor and cuts to the rim before receiving a perfect pass from guard Pe’Shon Howard for the slam dunk.

Len faced significant competition in this game as he went up against Willie Cauley-Stein and Noel, who are both excelling at the NBA level these days.

As a sophomore, Len averaged 11.9 ppg and 7.8 rpg and was one of the most talented big men in the country. With that type of season, it wasn’t a surprise when Len declared for the 2013 NBA Draft after just two years in College Park.

After coming off the bench for over two seasons, Len is definitely making the most of his chance to shine at the NBA level.

On March 4 against the Orlando Magic, the Suns big man had the strongest game of his professional career as he scored 31 points (10-of-22) and hauled in 15 rebounds in a 102-84 Phoenix win. Len also showcased his ability to get to the free throw line as he connected on 11 of his 14 attempts from the charity stripe.

On March 12 against the defending champion Golden State Warriors, Len turned in another phenomenal performance to the tune of 26 points (10-of-18) and 13 rebounds. Despite being one of the Western Conference’s bottom feeders, Phoenix hung with Golden State in a 123-116 loss.

One of the key improvements in his game as of late was been his jump shot. During his time at Maryland, Len made his living under the basket.

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with being a back-to-the-basket type of player, but expanding your game is huge at the NBA level. In the loss to the Warriors, Len connected on five jumpers.

Len really is the total package when it comes to being an NBA big man. He can score inside and outside, rebound at a high rate, and alter shots at the rim.

Next: Sam Cassell Jr. will transfer

If he continues to get this type of playing next season, the Suns have a chance to show significant improvement with guys like Devin Booker and Brandon Knight also in the fold.