Alex Len, the fifth overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, has played a grand total of 21 minutes this season. After back-to-back heartbreaking losses, the Suns fell to 5-4 on the year. Tanking analysis aside, the obvious stat here is that since playing the first two games of the season, Len hasn’t played a single minute. Given that he his original timetable for return was sometime in December, it’s not the end of the world that Len’s ankles have limited his action so far. But now that he’s returned to practice, what can Suns fans expect from their Ukrainian rookie?
First off, it’s important to temper expectations. There’s always a sense of urgency when it comes to rookies drafted in the top five, this sometimes overwhelming desire to see that player compete at the highest level almost immediately. But Len was never going to be that player coming off summer ankle surgeries and being that he’s actually played a few games much earlier than expected is a good sign.
The Suns will likely set a minutes limit on Len for the next few weeks to see how his ankle fares after returning to action. If he doesn’t have any setbacks this week, he could get a few minutes off the bench as Miles Plumlee‘s backup. Before we watched Plumlee play in the preseason, it almost seemed like a lock that Len would assume starting responsibilities as soon as he was fully recovered and in shape. Now I’m not so sure.
Plumlee is averaging 10.9 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game while also shooting 49 percent from the floor. The high-flying offense of Frequent Flyer Miles has made him a lot of fun to watch on the offensive end, but his above-the-rim athleticism has also been a big part of the Suns’ surprisingly stingy defense (which is fifth in the league in points allowed per game at 95.8). Plumlee won’t be getting any All-Star votes any time soon, but he’s been (at worst) a serviceable, aesthetically entertaining center.
With that in mind, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I’m actually more curious about what the Suns have in Plumlee than Len. Len’s development should be a priority and who knows? His ceiling could be higher than Plumlee’s. But since Len will be limited for the next few months and since Plumlee has done such an admirable job as the unexpected surprise of the Luis Scola trade, it makes the most sense to confine Len to a reserve role for the time being.
Len hasn’t exactly wowed anyone in limited playing time during the preseason or regular season. He’s never scored more than seven points in those seven games and he’s only recorded more than six rebounds once in those seven contests. Even more worrisome is his tendency to rack up fouls in a short amount of time: Len has been whistled for four fouls in five of his seven games, during which he only averaged 14 minutes per game.
Expectations shouldn’t be too high for Len this season. If anything, fans should be putting their stock for the future in Frequent Flyer Miles. But that’s actually a good thing, if only because it takes a ton of pressure off of Alex Len to come in and produce right away as a starting center. Because of Plumlee’s pleasant emergence as an above-par center, Len will have time to heal and develop without being rushed along. If he can come off the bench, stay healthy, and continue to improve as the season progresses, Len and the Suns will be in a good place come June 2014. Unfortunately, now it’s just a matter of losing games to make that 2014 NBA Draft one to remember.