Saturday, January 19, 2013

Midseason Report: Alex Len

Not only did Alex Len come into this season 30 pounds heavier than last year, he was also a lot more comfortable. In his freshman season, he was forced to miss the first ten games and the season and had a hard time adjusting to life in the states. Imagine his situation - missing the first ten games is one thing - we saw how slow Shabazz was after missing weeks of practice and UCLA's first three games. And the overall transition to the college game is tough for any player, especially living away from home for the first time. But for Len, he moved by himself to another country and didn't even understand the language. So while he was behind in learning Maryland's system, he had an even tougher time understanding the coaches and getting up to speed.

This year Len's English had improved to the point where he can now communicate with his teammates and understand what the coaches have to say. There was a sense that he would have a breakout year and potentially become a first round draft pick. Maryland's first game was against Kentucky and Len didn't wait very long to generate buzz in front of plenty of NBA scouts at Barclay's. 

Len had 23 points (10-18 shooting) and 12 rebounds against potential #1 overall pick Nerlens Noel. This was the perfect way for Len to start off his year and the matchup couldn't have been better. The hype surrounding Noel was immense, but he was still a very raw freshman in his first game. But seeing Alex Len outplay him, that turned some heads - even though it shouldn't have been a surprise. 

Soon after, you started hearing Len's name mentioned among the top 5 players in the draft. An obvious overreaction for a guy who really only had one good game. Fans were infatuated with a college big man with a true post game. Old school NBA fans loved him and wondered aloud if he could be the polished post big man that the NBA has been missing. They romanticized his game into something they longed for - something that has been thought to be dying in the professional game.

And make no mistake about it - Alex Len is a highly skilled player. His back to the basket game is one of the best to come along in the college ranks in recent memory. The variety of ways in which he can score, his ability to stretch the defense, and his touch on his shot make his offensive game complete. He throws in turnaround jumpers from either shoulder, solid footwork, and willingness to operate with his back to the basket the people love and is tough to stop if you are the opposition. 

Len didn't dominate competition after his game against Kentucky. After his 23 point performance against the Wildcats, Len failed to match it in any other non-conference affair - netting a high 19 against Stony Brook. But Len wasn't needed to dominate these games. Maryland rolled over most of their competition with a high scoring offensive attack that didn't have to involve their plodding big man. They played arguably the weakest non-conference schedule in the NCAA and Len was consistently covered by smaller defenders - but sometimes two defenders at a time. 

Heading into ACC play, you could say Alex Len was playing a good game. He went "all-in" on the Kentucky game, raising his stock, and then sat back and played it safe thereafter. There wasn't much he could have done in games against the likes of Maryland-Eastern Shore, Georgia Southern, and South Carolina State. He continued to flash his skills each game and analysts were satisfied with his performance - with Kentucky still engraved in their mind.

ACC play is a different animal though. It separates the men from the boys. So far, Len had faced young "boys" at Kentucky in their first career college game and a bunch of low-major 6-7 post players. And he actually struggled at times with the physicality of play and defense.

But nobody was watching him then. 

We are now 5 games into ACC play. Through these 5 games, Len is shooting 47% from the field, 19-28 from the line, grabbing 11 boards (per 40), and has 7 blocks and 5 assists to his name. Again, still nothing dominating and his last two games against other potential first round bigs have netted him 20 total points. 

The Terrapins have had trouble getting the ball into Len and in the process, are making sure people don't underestimate the value of a quality entry pass. Pe'Shon Howard has struggled to run the point for the Terps and has delivered errant passes into the post time and time again.

Passing into the post is a lost art. And it comes with the lack of big men with offensive skills like Len's. And playing through a big man is also something that has gone to the wayside. 

The Terrapins have been battling with an identity crisis so far in ACC play due to that very issue. They have a good big man and want to get the ball into him, But at the same time, the game has changed and you like your players to get out and push the ball in transition. If a college team is struggling to focus an offense around a talented big man, you think a more talented NBA team will go out of their way to run their offense through one?

Maryland's problem isn't just entry passing and style of play when it comes to featuring Len. Its personnel. Maryland's other bigs are bruising types and clog the lane on offense. Between Shaq Cleare, Charles Mitchell and James Padgett - none of them have shown an inclination to shoot jumpers. So with the big lineups Mark Turgeon likes to run, Alex Len usually lacks the space that a lot of other college teams have that have stretch power forwards.

But it isn't just the big man who can't shoot. No, this is a problem with the whole team. Such a problem that Albany transfer Logan Aronhalt finds himself as a necessary member of the team's rotation. They rank 10th in the ACC in 3-pt percentage and have only made 95 on the year - which ranks them 243rd in the nation. 

So spacing is an obvious problem as well. Pe'Shon can't throw entry passes or run point, Dez Wells prefers to push the ball, and Nick Faust rarely looks to set up his teammates to score. Not exactly the supporting cast you'd want to surround Len with. But we know what he is capable of on offense so that isn't a concern.

Concerns with Len come with his defense and his role at the next level. His role is a complicated matter that we've skimmed over a few times already. His defense is pretty simple - he's not very good at it.

And I don't think most people have realized that Len is a bad defender. But they will now that ACC play has started. Simply looking at blocks, you'd assume Len is at least a solid defender. He's normally good for two of them a game. 

Being a good shot blocker doesn't equal a good defender though. Len is the perfect example. For one, Len is a chronic biter on pump fakes. He's always looking to block a shot and is easily lifted off of his feet. To make it worse is his recovery time - once he gets out of place, ball handlers will have their shot off before he can even regather himself.

His lack of ability to make up for mistakes also corresponds to his inability to change directions or move laterally well. Opposing teams love getting Len out on the top of the arc to cover the pick and roll. He is very slow on his feet, struggles changing directions, and lacks an understanding of where to be in order to disrupt the offense. In most cases, Len finds himself in no mans land - not helping hedge the ball handler or getting back to cover the roller. A slow mind mixed with slow feet is not a recipe for success on defense. Len finds himself out of position more times than not on the defensive end.

Len also needs to do a better job using that 7'5'' wingspan on the defensive end. Naturally, Len stands a bit awkwardly and is obviously not a natural knee bender when it comes to getting into defense position and moving his feet. But in the post, Len can do a better job of showing off his wingspan and deterring shots without going for blocks. He needs to develop a mentality as a rim protector - too many times he allows a man to slip behind him and get an easy basket. He also struggles with smaller guys who can go into his body, use his leverage against him, and also outmuscle him. Len has been beaten in this way by some of the low-major players.

Alex Len is a solid rebounder, pulling down 12.5 per 40 minutes. Compared to other top prospects, Len is the 11th best big man in DraftExpress's Top 100 in terms of rebounds. Not great, not terrible. For his size, you'd like more. For the NBA, you'd certainly like a center that is either a great defender or rebounder. Len is neither at this point. Len has been outhustled and outmanned on the boards at times this year. When he does pull down boards though, he usually does a good job of maintaining possession. 

Then there is the question of fit. How does he fit an NBA team? Who does he play like?

The Jonas Valanciunas comparison has been thrown around. Valanciunas actually dominated Len a few years back in the U-18 European Championships. The comparison is pretty off base. Yes, both have similar size and builds while lacking great athleticism. But that is where the comparisons stop for me.

Valanciunas is a much different offensive player. He thrives finishing around the hoop and doesn't stray too far from there. He sticks with his bread and butter and plays efficient basketball. He knows how to use his length around the rim and is stronger than he looks. He also is a good screener who would much rather roll to the basket off a ball screen than to pop out for a jumper. His ability to roll after a pick is a considerable strength and he gets a lot of points this way. On these plays, Jonas shows his ability to move in space and the body control to finish. Valanciunas has always been, and projects to be, a complimentary piece on offense instead of a guy you ask to make plays in the post.

Now for Len, he's a guy who would much prefer to pop after a ball screen. He is much more skilled and can knock down jumpers from 18 feet in. When he rolls, he is slow and isn't very fluid. He can do it on occasion and has good hands to receive passes, but it is not a strength of his. And when it comes to finishing inside, he is not on the same level as Jonas. Len shies away from the contact and is hesitant in traffic. He doesnt use his long arms as well as the Lithuanian does to finish. When it comes to offensive skills though, Alex Len's ability far outshine Valanciunas's as has already been discussed. He is much more likely to receive post touches and have the offense run through him.

Defensively is where the greatest separation could be. Valanciunas has the lateral ability, the aggressiveness, and the smarts that Len has not shown. And that is where fit comes into play. Valanciunas fit into the NBA was easy to project. Len has a more intriguing package in some ways, but how can a NBA team use it?

NBA centers in today's game are asked to rebound and defender first and foremost. The game has changed from the days of dominant offensive bigs. There is no more hand checking which allows guards to be much more prominent. While people yearn for fundamentally sound bigs to return, the problem is more of the priorities of GMs than it is the lack of back to the basket big men. 

Alex Len has lots of work to do in order to become a starter in the NBA and fill the role of a 2012 NBA center. And if you do run the offense through him, his passing has to improve if the 5 assists in 5 ACC games is any indication.

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