There was skepticism about Alex Len as the potential No. 1 pick. And there was still skepticism when he ended up as the No. 5 pick, selected by the Phoenix Suns.
You see, Alex Len is from the Ukraine. Being from the Ukraine, we're predisposed to lump him in with our pre-existing stereotypes about European big men. Then we hear that he also did gymnastics before he ever played basketball, and we hear his halting, unmistakable accent, we see that he didn't even average 12 points per game in college, and we guffaw, already having assigned him a sub-par NBA fate.
We need to take all of those stereotypes, and crumple them up into a tiny ball of xenophobia, and throw them away. Alex Len does not fit them, and although there's no certainty that he ends up as a star, or even anything more than a serviceable NBA player, his growth has been tremendous, and there's no real reason to think it should stop.
Alex Len is not soft. He's 7'1, 255 pounds, as eager to effect games by blocking shots or ripping boards as he is by scoring. And when he does score, its your typical center's back-to-the-basket fare rather than your 18-footers, although he did display an ability to hit those shots at points during his sophomore year.
Alex Len is not unproven. His resume is not some grainy overseas footage from a U-19 game attended by 45 scouts and 37 fans featuring him dominating Balkan teenagers. Len's resume consists of play at Maryland against college basketball's elites, players he's being considered against in the NBA Draft, and it's a good one. It features a game against fellow Nerlens Noel where he dropped 23 points, reeled in 12 rebounds, and swatted four shots, as well as a win over then-No. 1 Duke where he had 19 points on just eight field goal attempts to go along with eight blocks.
Len took a massive leap between his freshman and sophomore years at college, turning from a import about whom nothing was special besides his size to a legitimate NBA prospect. And that enormous leap in one year's time makes one wonder about how much better he can get.
As Alex Prewitt wrote in the Washington Post, Len has been on his own since he was 13. He left his family's coal mining town of 80,000 Antratsit for Dnipropetrovsk, a city of over a million where he would play for one of Ukraine's best basketball programs. He dominated at a U-18 tournament, and having impressed scouts, he'd get the opportunity to venture even further from his family, heading across the sea.
In America, he was very much an unproven commodity. When he committed to Maryland in August, 2011, Testudo Times had little to go off besides two Youtube videos and a poor quality photo. Prewitt writes that coaches, teammates -- and his now live-in girlfriend, 6'7 Maryland center Essence Townsend -- had to speak slowly and with lots of emphasis just to get across basic ideas to Len.
And on the court, he wasn't particularly impressive. He was suspended for the first ten games of his career, thanks to a brief stint with a pro team in Europe. He shot 55 percent, but on limited attempts. He didn't get to the line much, and when he did, he shot 58 percent from there. He blocked a lot of shots, but so should any 7'1 player. He was sort of like those stereotypes we discussed earlier: a lost import, tough to talk to, tough to teach, perhaps with potential inside his enormous frame, but who knows?
But he worked hard at pretty much everything. He put on 30 pounds of muscle, going from a frail 225 pounds spread across a 7-foot frame to a legitimate, muscular center. He took six hours of English classes a day, going from someone hesitant to say pretty much anything to somebody capable of going toe-to-toe in conversation with Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose.
As for improvement in his game, well, suffice it to say we're talking about him as somebody who easily could have been the top pick in the draft. With only a slight uptick in minutes, his points production doubled, without a major dropoff in efficiency. His rebounds increased. He drew more fouls and hit a higher percentage of his shots. He looked more comfortable shooting the ball, forcing players to come out on him, his post moves looked crisper and more forceful.
That transformation is the result of just one year. Now, the Suns have the chance to see how many more leaps he can take. We're still talking about a player who averaged 11.9 points a game in college. He's not a finished product. Like every other 20-year-old big man in the history of basketball, there's room for improvement.
The transition to the NBA won't be easy. But neither was the transition of leaving his family in Ukraine, nor the transition from Ukraine to college. It might take time, especially as he rehabs from a stress fracture suffered before the draft, but he's shown the capability for exponential growth.
Len isn't yet a monster. But nobody in this draft was, and Len certainly seems on the path to attaining monsterdom, which is all the Suns could've asked for with the fifth pick.