Expected draft position: Top 10
College career: The arrival of Olexiy "Alex" Len at the University of Maryland campus was a bit unusual, in that it came without the months or even years that fans, thanks to the coverage dedicated to college basketball recruiting, typically have to become acquainted with a school's top recruits. When Len signed with the Terps at the end of August 2011, a couple months before his freshman season was set to start, he was already well-known among international scouts, who had been projecting Len as a future NBA lottery pick since seeing him flash rare athleticism for a 7-footer during the 2010 Under-18 European Championships. But he was still an enigma to fans, who knew nothing about him other than he was big (7'1"), Ukrainian and, given the pro hype, the key to replacing their departed star center, Jordan Williams.
Len's college career got off to an inauspicious start when the NCAA suspended him from the first 10 games of his freshman season over concerns that he violated amateurism rules by playing for a professional club team in Ukraine. Once Len got on the floor, his play didn't exactly live up to the hype. While he flashed moments of dominance, they came between lengthy periods of listless, near-invisible play. Some of his struggles were attributed to the difficulty of learning a new language while also adapting to a different culture and brand of basketball, not to mention a college course load, all while dealing with the expectation of being a future lottery pick. Still, Len's potential as a versatile offensive center and elite rim protector was obvious, and he entered his sophomore season still projected as a high pick in the 2013 NBA Draft.
Whether Len lived up to the hype as a sophomore probably depends on which games you saw him play. He opened the season with a dominant showing against Nerlens Noel, the top recruit in the nation, scoring 23 points and grabbing 12 rebounds in a loss to Kentucky. The performance immediately generated reports of NBA scouts stating that Len had an outside shot of being the top pick in 2013 draft. Unfortunately for Len, his first game of the season might have also have been his best, as the inconsistency from his freshman year carried over to 2012, though his streaks of inspired play were more frequent and lasting. He had a game-winning tip in against N.C. State, two strong efforts against Duke and Mason Plumlee towards of the end of the season, and another huge game against Alabama in the third-round of the NIT, but fans saw Len at his best against Noel, and he never quite measured up to that standard again.
Questions abounded whether Len's inconsistency was due to a general lack of toughness and killer drive, or the guards he was playing with at Maryland, who seemed incapable of feeding him the ball down low despite his ability to establish decent position. It didn't help Len's cause when news broke last week that he had been diagnosed immediately after the season with a partial stress fracture in his ankle, and that he had undergone surgery that would keep him out 4-6 months, meaning he'll miss pre-draft workouts, summer league and preseason games, and maybe even the first part of the regular season. In addition to the health concerns that come with leg injuries to any young big man, the universal expectation was that Len would have shined in individual workouts with teams running up to the draft, perhaps putting to rest some of the remaining concerns scouts have with his game. On the other hand, it was reported during the second-half of the Terps' season that Len was playing with a sprained ankle; if he was in fact playing with the stress fracture, that might go a long way to explaining why he was so inconsistent down the stretch.
Offense: Len in some ways violates the stereotype surrounding European big men, namely that they're jump shooters and can't play down low. If Len has a bright future in the NBA, it will be because of his post game, which is still developing, but shows clear potential. He has soft hands and great touch around the basket. Right now he's much better at facing up to the basket, using his quickness to get by defenders and his length to finish at the rim. Even after adding a lot of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons, Len doesn't currently have the strength to effectively bang and bruise down low, but he has wide shoulders and the frame needed to bulk up further. When Len did post up in college, he showcased quick feet, but his footwork was wildly inconsistent. There were times when his low post moves couldn't look smoother, and others when he'd look uncoordinated and off-balance, like a kid still getting used to a recent growth spurt. Len does pass well out of the post, when he remains calm and doesn't get flustered by double- or triple-teams, which happens more often than you'd like. Len rarely looks to take over a game, preferring to play within the offense (an asset Randy Wittman would love) and take his shots as they come. But this unselfishness also worked to his detriment, as there were often times when the Terps needed Len to be more aggressive offensively, leading scouts to question whether he's too passive for the NBA.
As for Len's jump shot, it's NBA-ready from midrange. He's got very good mechanics on his jumper, and projects as an above-average shooter for an NBA center, one who could flourish in the pick-the-roll alongside the right point guard (John Wall?). Len also improved as a free throw shooter while at Maryland (59% as a freshman, 69% as a sophomore) and should be above average for an NBA big man given his solid form.
Defense: For his size, Len is a decent shot blocker and rebounder. At this stage, he's not what you would call dominant at either. He averaged 2.1 blocks per game as a freshman, leading the ACC in blocks-per-40 minutes, but he averaged the same amount again as a sophomore despite playing five more minutes per game. Len also averaged 7.8 rebounds in 26.4 minutes per game in 2012, which is good, but not great. Still, at 7'1" and with his length, Len will be able to protect the rim from the moment he steps on an NBA court. On the perimeter, Len's quick feet serve him well defending the pick-and-roll, as he's able to step out and hedge screens while maintaining the ability to get back and guard his man.
A disciplined defender who generally stayed out of foul trouble, averaging 2.7 fouls per game as a sophomore, Len relies on bodying up in the post, moving his feet and forcing opponents to shoot over him. He doesn't have the strength to consistently keep from getting posted up, and opponents are consistently able to establish deep post position against him. It didn't matter as much in college, where most of the players Len guarded didn't have the length to shoot over him, but that won't be the case in the pros, and he'll need to learn that the key to defending down low is to do your work early.
Pro potential/Wizards fit: Questionably listed at 255 pounds, Len has the frame to put on the weight he'll need to survive down low in the NBA. At 7'1", he boasts as much potential as any player in the 2013 NBA Draft, and is generally considered its second-best center prospect behind Noel. At his ceiling, Len projects as a center that can shut down an opponent's best post scorer, protect the rim, and score at will, either in the post, where his quickness and length will make him a matchup nightmare, or in the pick-and-roll, whether it's popping out for a jump shot or rolling to the rim for alley oops. Len also runs the floor very well for a player his size, which combined with his potential as a pick-and-roll partner makes him a perfect fit schematically alongside Wall.
Len often appears calm and collected on the court, perhaps to a fault, as his toughness and passion for the game are often among the main questions raised about him. His passivity was well-publicized during his freshman season, when he struggled to adapt to a new way of life in the United States. By his sophomore season, Len had mastered English and appeared far more comfortable with his teammates and reporters in the locker room. His on-court demeanor didn't change much, but he frequently flashed some fire, pumping his fists and shouting into the crowd on occasions when he or one of his teammates made a big play. As for his toughness, Len doesn't really seek out contact on either end of the floor, but he doesn't back down from it either. He also rarely looks to the officials for help on the offensive end, where's he undoubtedly a finesse player, more interested in using his quickness and length to score rather than banging down low.
For what it's worth, in his latest mock draft ESPN's Chad Ford has the Wizards taking Len at No. 8 overall, citing his enormous upside and Washington's need for a long-term solution in the post. Whether the Wizards actually consider selecting Len will depend on if they're willing to take a chance on a potential cornerstone, or if they'd rather go with a safer selection that can instantly contribute to a team with its sights set on making the playoffs.
We reached out to SB Nation's Maryland Terrapins blog, Testudo Times, for help in breaking down Len's pro potential, and contributors Pete Volk and Dave Tucker were kind enough to offer their analysis:
Alex Len will need at least a year before he can play in the NBA. If the Wizards, or whoever ends up with him, are smart, that will be in the D-League, but we've seen early picks thrust too early into the league before.
Any time you watched a Maryland basketball game this season, whichever new announcing team was in town would spend half the game commenting on how bad Len looked. "This is the guy everyone wants to take in the lottery? Him?" They weren't wrong, in a sense - Len had really an awful sophomore year with Maryland, and has MUCH work to do before he's even a passable basketball player.
The potential is undoubtedly there, and with it it's easy to understand why teams want him. He's tall, has great length, is a plus shooter, and his defensive awareness is growing steadily. His biggest problem remains on the offensive side of the ball - he has NO idea what to do with himself in the post - but that can be taught (and weight can be put on). The comparisons to Nowitzki and Gasol will likely be endless, but that's pretty lazy. Instead, in a perfect world, I see him closer to Amare Stoudemire, with less inside explosiveness. Len is incredibly athletic, and can dunk with the best of them, and has that great outside shot to back him up. All he needs to work on is his game in the post - once he's got that, the rest is golden.
At 7' 1", Len definitely has size and potential, which is why he's viewed as a top 10 pick by most. When you look at the transformation he made at Maryland between last year and this year, it was a night and day improvement. He's definitely shown the ability to get better when he's give the chance to work on his game. Case in point - his mid-range jumper, a shot that seemingly didn't exist his freshman year, became a regular part of his scoring arsenal this season. If he's given time and the proper coaching, Len has the potential to be a great center in the NBA, including on the defensive side of the ball.
This season at Maryland, Len led the ACC in blocks with 78. He was also a force on the glass, grabbing 7.8 rebounds per game. His mid-range jumper was a nice addition for him, allowing him to shot over a defender if he was unable to get to the rim. However, one of his biggest struggles this season was putting the ball on the floor too often when he was around the basket. As the season progressed, he began to simply put up a shot or slam it home rather than trying to dribble it once or twice first. However, he still struggled at times, especially when he was double teamed in the paint. He was often times unable to find the open player in those situations and would put up an ill-advised shot or turn the ball over. But again, that was something he continued to improve on throughout the season.
In terms of how he'll fit in with the Wizards, I think fans need to look at Len as a bit of a project, especially given the stress fracture in his ankle that he recently had surgery to correct. Len was arguably someone who could have benefited from spending time in the D-League this summer, but will now be unable to do anything basketball related for the next six months as he recovers. As a result, if the Wizards selected Len, I don't think you'd see him make much of an impact during the 2013-2014 season. How he fits on the team after that depends on what Washington does with some of the current players on their roster. Ideally, you'd like to slowly work Len into your rotation. He has the potential to be a very skilled center who can back down defenders, make mid-range jumpers, grab rebounds and protect the basket on defense. But Len's ankle should raise a red flag in that many big men who suffer foot injuries often times struggle upon their return.