After taking Alex Len in the 2013 NBA Draft, the Phoenix Suns lost their two backup centers from the 2012-13 season. The Suns lost Jermaine O’Neal‘s excellent defense off the bench (and game-losing goaltends) when he signed a contract with the Golden State Warriors. And despite the humor he brought to the team, Hamed Haddadi was waived at the end of June. Many assumed Marcin Gortat was on the trade block as soon as Phoenix picked Len fourth overall, but general manager Ryan McDonough quickly straightened the record: Gortat isn’t going anywhere.
That leaves the Suns with five players who can play the center position — Gortat, Len, Channing Frye, Miles Plumlee and Viacheslav Kravtsov — for the 2013-14 season. The Suns acquired Plumlee in the Luis Scola trade with the Indiana Pacers and Kravtsov joined the team in the Caron Butler trade with the Milwaukee Bucks. Kravtsov and Plumlee will be competing for a spot on the final 15-man roster and probably won’t crack the rotation even if they do make the squad, so we won’t spend any time on them. But how Jeff Hornacek juggles Gortat, Len and Frye will be interesting to watch even during a tank year.
First of all, we have to point out the obvious. Alex Len is a first-round draft pick with a lot of potential, but he won’t be ready to play until around December. Len had surgery before the draft to repair a stress fracture in his left ankle and everyone knew his likely return would be sometime around December. Then in July, he had a second ankle surgery, this time on his right ankle. Not exactly inspiring. Plus, at the time of the draft, nobody knew what Channing Frye’s status was for the upcoming season. So with all that in mind, it makes sense that the Suns decided to keep Gortat around to “mentor Len.”
Frye recently confirmed he’ll be returning to the court after missing last season because of an enlarged heart condition, but Gortat will more than likely be the starting center for the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns. A healthy Channing Frye means a stronger starting five (or bench, depending on how Hornacek wants to play him), but Frye will either start at the power forward position over Markieff Morris or he’ll come off the bench as the backup center until Len is healthy.
So what can the Phoenix Suns expect from the center position this season? With Gortat, you’re getting more of the same: a decent pick-and-roll partner, average rebounder, a block or two when he’s feeling extra motivated and sub-par interior defense. In fact, Gortat’s post D is so underwhelming I hope he doesn’t mentor Len, because the last thing the Suns need is for their first-round draft pick to learn bad defensive habits. But for all his deficiencies on defense, Gortat still averaged a respectable 11.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game and will at least be a serviceable big man for a tanking team.
As for Frye, I’ve never liked the idea of playing him at the center position. He’s not strong enough to stop opposing centers and his rebounding could definitely use some work: 5.2 rebounds per game in his NBA career. But in a tank year? Sure. Why not? Frye is better suited playing the stretch-4 position because of his “3-point shot” (which may be a tad overrated since Frye career 3-point percentage is an unimpressive 39 percent). However, as long as he keeps jacking up 3s when he sees daylight, defenses will have to spread to guard him and that’s how the Suns should use Frye when they’re serious about contending for the playoffs. So since Phoenix isn’t really competing for anything this season, it won’t hurt to let Frye bang bodies in the paint with other backup centers.
When Alex Len plays his first NBA game, Hornacek can move Frye back to his more natural position at the power forward spot. He may already have Frye starting over Morris at the 4, but since Frye will likely have to get back into shape first, bringing him off the bench makes more sense. As for Len, he’ll take over backup center duties playing behind Gortat. And unless Len immediately proves to be a complete bust, you can fully expect Gortat trade rumors to start circulating after a few months. At 29 years old, Gortat isn’t part of the Suns’ rebuilding plans, which makes him fully expendable if Len shows us the potential that only McDonough and a handful of NBA fans see.
I was less than enthralled that the Suns didn’t try to trade up and draft Victor Oladipo and drafting a center with bad ankles sounds like a bad nightmare along the lines of Sam Bowie and Greg Oden. Then again, McDonough is credited as the guy who knew Rajon Rondo would be good when he was an assistant GM with the Boston Celtics. So if Len can return healthy and improve as the season goes along, Phoenix could have something special on its hands. At 7’1″ and 255 pounds, Len has an NBA body that will allow him to compete. He averaged a respectable 11.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game in his last season at Maryland.
But the most telling statistics are Len’s numbers in prime-time games. Against Nerlens Noel and the Kentucky Wildcats, Len posted 23 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks while holding Noel to just four points and nine rebounds. And in a winning effort against Duke, Len put up 19 points, nine rebounds and three blocks while holding Mason Plumlee to just four points and three rebounds. When he was challenged by a center of his caliber, Len rose to the occasion. As long as he’s healthy, there’s no reason he can’t learn to continue the trend in the NBA.
When it comes down to it, the centers aren’t going to make a huge impact on the Phoenix Suns this season, which is fine considering the fact that it’s basically a wasted year anyway. The Suns’ starting center will become trade bait in a few months, their backup is an unproven rookie with a history of injury problems and their third center is actually a power forward playing out of position as he tries to come back from missing a whole season. But as daunting as that sounds, Suns fans should absolutely keep an eye on Len going forward; the only thing Phoenix can ask for is improvement on both ends of the floor. Because if he can stay healthy and proves to be an asset in this rebuilding process, the Phoenix Suns will have a young, talented core after the 2014 NBA Draft.