Under-the-radar breakout: Phoenix Suns centre Alex Len is playing like a star

This past offseason, Phoenix Suns centre Alex Len could not get himself a contract. Whereas he might have been hot property in the free-spending summer of 2016, he was unable to get himself a significant suitor as a restricted free agent this time around. He ended up re-signing with the Suns to his one year qualifying offer, a comparatively paltry $4,187,599 and a trip back to unrestricted free agency next summer.

Apparently, this snub has motivated him. For this year’s edition of Alex Len looks like a new player.

So far this year, Len is posting career highs in points, rebounds and assists, all the while posting considerably reduced foul rates. He is averaging 9.1 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.3 rebounds per game, while playing only 22.1 minutes per contest. Indeed, in doing this much in that little of time, Len is currently one of only three NBA players ever to most more than 9/9/1 in less than 25 minutes.

And the company for that honour is pretty good.

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In doing this, Len is also one of only 18 players in the league averaging at least 9 points and 9 rebounds this season. Of those 18, he is the seventh youngest, older than only Ben Simmons, Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, Clint Capela and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and alongside peers such as Andre Drummond, Anthony Davis and Rudy Gobert. That, certainly, is company worth keeping.

Len is doing all this despite a variable role. Starting the season on the bench behind Tyson Chandler, Len is still on the bench, starting only two games all season, but has had to further contend with the arrival of Greg Monroe.

The Suns never especially wanted Monroe, but acquired him anyway in the Eric Bledsoe trade due to him being a mixture of being the best player available and being the right size of contract to make the deal work. The fit with him, Len and Chandler is an awkward one, as none of the three is a power forward, despite Monroe occasionally filling in at the position in his time as a Sun.

Nevertheless, regardless of how much they want Monroe for the future, they have him. And if he is to retain any value as an asset, he should play.

When Monroe has played, he has played well, averaging 11.4 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game in only 22.9 minutes. Always able to get position around the basket to catch and finish, as well as hit cutting and spotting-up team mates whether facing towards or away from the basket, Monroe is a very good offensive player who merits minutes due to his high skill level, even in spite of his defensive deficiencies.

However, Monroe has received DNP-CDs in three of the last four Suns games. And the story goes that he is now rumoured to be a buyout candidate.

Len, simply, is denying him a spot.

Given his upcoming unrestricted free agency, there could be an argument for keeping Len on the bench. Albeit a slightly archaic perspective given the far greater volume of data available today, the idea of starters being better players and thus paid more is still subconsciously pervasive. If Len is only doing this from the bench, the theory goes, then he is more limited than those doing it against starters.

Therefore, to keep Len on the bench despite him routinely outplaying Chandler could serve to keep his free agency cost down next summer, thus allowing the Suns to retain him for less and keep more financial flexibility going forward. Maybe that is what is already happening here, in fact. It would explain why he continues to come off the bench. 

That said, if Phoenix’s rotation was decided purely by business decisions, Len would be the odd man out. As expensive but resalable veterans on a team looking long term, Chandler and Monroe would be playing their way into increased trade value, while Len, who is not eligible for an extension and thus headed for unrestricted free agency this summer whether he wants to or not, would be eve further down the bench, on the fringes of the rotation if even in it at all, keeping his value down so as to be re-signed for less.

But Len’s play has prevented that. He is simply too good to bench. And maybe he shouldn’t be coming off of it any more.

This is quite the turnaround for Len, who last year lost his starting spot to Chandler, and then lost playing time altogether to undrafted rookie Alan Williams. Williams is legitimately solid on the interior on both ends, but his lack of mobility limits his upside. Whatever upside he has is as a backup. He should never rightly have won that role from Len. But he did.

The Suns, it appears, credit this turnaround to a change in priorities for Len. Whereas they once envisioned him as a player capable of finishing with post touches and pick-and-pop potential, not entirely unlike Monroe (and entirely fairly considering Len’s size and frame), the Suns now run Len’s touches through mostly pick-and-rolls and put-backs, no longer giving him as many touches in the paint and the half-court, encouraging him to focus his efforts elsewhere.

Despite this apparent shift in focus away from developing a scoring game, Len is scoring better than ever.

He is scoring the ball at a career high rate per game (9.1), on a career-best shooting percentage from the field (53.6% against a career average of 47.2%), buoyed by excellent foul shooting (a career-best 77.3% thus far versus a career average of 72.5%). The 60.5% true shooting percentage this works out to is far in excess of the 55.3% he shot last year, and even farther ahead of his 52.6% career mark, while his assists rate of 8.7% is also a career-high.

His offensive rebounding rate, residing between 10.2 and 10.6 over the previous three seasons and ever before above the 12.1% mark of his rookie season, is at a striking 15.1%, the fifth-best mark in the league behind only noted rebounders Steven Adams, Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan and Enes Kanter. Len has 1.4 win shares on the season already despite never passing 1.2 in any year prior, an offensive rating of 119 versus a previous career best of 108, and an offensive box plus/minus of -0.2, massive improvements on his previous career best of a mere -3.0.

Put succinctly, Len looks much better. Len looks quicker. Len looks stronger. Len looks sharper, more decisive, more controlled, and more aware of what he is there to do. Len, it seems, has figured out how best to use his skills and what role he should fill.

Gone are the jump shots, on which he shot only 30.6% last year on more than two attempts per game; Len has attempted only eight shots outside of the paint all season (missing them all). Instead comes a diet of pick-and-rolls, attacks at the offensive glass, put-backs and tidy-ups, all hard to contests in one so large.

Given his bad hands and lack of touch/handle/speed away from the rim, this perhaps is as good offensively as it is going to get. But it is a rather good offensive package by this point. He even better recognises when to pass out of the trouble he normally used to try to muscle through, only to have the ball stripped. His offensive awareness this season is considerably improved.

Len looks better defensively, too. The same decisiveness and awareness that benefits him on offence is evident on that end, too, and his awareness on switches and pick-and-roll defence is also there to be seen. A 7’1 frame will never move too well laterally in perimeter situations, yet with better footwork and commitment, Len is having an impact, while also being a useful shotblocker in the paint.

At no point has Len complained about his variable bench role publicly, nor is there any evidence from this side of the fence of doing so privately. He has been professional and, rookie season stress fracture aside, healthy. He is productive, consistent, and consistently productive. He is much improved, still improving, useful on both ends and growing game to game.

Alex Len is good now, and it’s high time we all took note.

Phoenix, still, are in a rebuild. They are still looking for pieces of the future and a foundation around which to start trying to be competitive. Devin Booker is a part of it, as will now be T.J. Warren on the wings with his large new contract. But up front, things are less clear. Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender have both shown intriguing flashes, but also underdeveloped in their skills, while Williams’s limited projection is irrelevant if he does not take the court, which he has not done all year. And everyone else is old. 

Except Len. Despite this being only his fifth year in the league, Len is still only 24 and with room to grow. The Suns, then, should have found their starter of the future. 

Every night, Len is answering the Suns’s frontcourt question. Perhaps it is time he was heard.

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