Len Starting to Show What Suns Already Knew
When Alex Len’s go-ahead tip-in at Boston feel through the net – accompanied by a whistle signaling a foul in addition to the basket – Jeff Hornacek leapt higher than he had since his playing days.
The excitement is understandable for player and coach, both of whom had eagerly hoped to see in live game action what they’d seen countless times in practice.
“To see Alex, especially coming off that foot, being as active as he is, being able to jump a little bit better for some things…to us, we see a great future for those [young] guys,” Hornacek said.
“They know how to play.”
Hornacek knows that, as do Len’s teammates. They see him every day in practice, witness him use his full skill set before roles and playing time place their necessary restrictions in real games.
When asked what onlookers probably don’t see from Len that he sees every day, starting guard Goran Dragic didn’t hesitate.
“He can really shoot the ball,” Dragic said with an impressed tone and expression. “For his size, for a big guy, he can shoot those big-range shots. In the game, maybe he’s not relaxed and just going into one move. But you know, just relax. Take the shot.”
Len did just that Wednesday night against Orlando. With the shot clock down to five seconds, the 7-foot-1 big man scooped up a loose ball, sized up his defender in the post, and executed a perfect 12-foot turnaround jump shot from the baseline.
When Len returned to the bench later in the quarter, he couldn’t contain his relief from assistant coach and big man specialist Kenny Gattison.
“I came to [Kenny and I was like, ‘man, I finally hit that shot,’” Len laughed. “We’ve been working on it every day and I do it in practice all the time. I’m just getting comfortable up there and having fun.”
He would have more before the night was over, finishing with nine points and five rebounds, including a fully extended putback dunk despite his feet hovering out over the top of the restricted area semi-circle.
There were other plays that didn’t show up in the box score. On defense, Len stifled the Orlando big men several times in the paint, preventing their shot attempts from having a serious chance of falling. On offense, a perfect high-low pass to a teammate ended in a missed shot at point-blank range.
By the end of the night, observers had seen much of the skill set that had convinced Hornacek and General Manager Ryan McDonough that Len was their guy at No. 5 in the draft last summer.
“He’s got great touch,” Hornacek said. “He’s got a good feel for the game. He can pass the ball. The game is fast for him right now, but at this stage, for us to be able to throw him in there in big games, he’s not afraid of anything. He’s long. He knows how to take up that space. He goes after rebounds. I think he’s got a great start to his rookie year even though it started late.”
Offseason foot surgeries caused the late start, and kept Len in a suit for the first half of the season. By the time he was able to play without pain, the Suns had established themselves as a possible playoff team with a rotation Hornacek was reluctant to alter more than necessary.
It was left up to Len to catch up in practice and learn by watching, much as starting big man Miles Plumlee was forced to do in Indiana last season, when he played a total of 55 minutes (Len has already logged nearly six times that amount).
“You’re always emphasizing to the guys that they can learn from sitting there,” Hornacek said. “You can always go back to what Miles said. Last year he didn’t play in Indiana. But he learned. He learned what was going on out there. You can always learn other team’s plays. You can learn a guy’s tendencies. These guys probably haven’t seen these NBA players as much. Even though they’re not playing on the court, there’s still time to learn and grow and try to do things in practice.”
Yet Hornacek made sure to give Len opportunities when the games provided them. Last week’s heroics at Boston came due to 1) Miles Plumlee getting poked in the eye in the fourth quarter and 2) Phoenix’s need to limit Celtics big man Jared Sullinger.
In just nine minutes – the last nine of a close game on the road – Len showed how much he’d progressed, finishing with six points (including the big tip-in and-one), three rebounds, a block and an assist.
Dragic appreciates those moments better than most, having experienced early in his career the anxiety of wanting to do in a game what he did every day on the practice court.
“It’s a work in progress,” Dragic said. “For some players it can come earlier, some players no. Everybody knows what Alex can do. It depends on how he’s prepared mentally for the game. All of those little things, they mean something. Maybe now it affects him a little bit more, how he’s going to approach the game. I think through time, he’s going to figure out those things and he’s going to be great.”
Hornacek agrees, more than hinting that they haven’t seen anything yet.
“I think he’s probably 30 percent of where he’s going to be at some point of his career,” Hornacek said.
“He’s going to be a great player for us.”