When the Phoenix Suns took Maryland center Alex Len with the No. 5 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, they were passing up on highly touted prospects like Nerlens Noel and Ben McLemore. They were taking a chance on a 7’1″ Ukrainian coming off a few ankle surgeries. And though he showed flashes of potential in his two seasons with the Terrapins, he was still a raw prospect who would definitely be a project for rookie head coach Jeff Hornacek. In other words, Len was viewed as the most likely draft bust, even in a draft that saw Anthony Bennett go first.
Fast forward a few months to January and Len has played a grand total of four games. The draft bust talk is growing strong, especially after Miles Plumlee‘s surprisingly competent play in the post. Plumlee’s freakish athletic ability and his pension for being a regular double-double threat make Len look clunky by comparison.
Fast forward to Friday night against the Boston Celtics when the surprising Suns are in desperate need of a win against a terrible Eastern Conference team but can’t put the ball in the hole. Plumlee and the Suns have both regressed during that two-month span, the team is on the outside of the playoffs looking in and on a night where the Phoenix shoots 5-for-26 from three-point range, Plumlee takes a shot to the eye and has to sit. There’s 8:52 left in the game, Phoenix is down three and Len has to come in for his first minutes of a game with playoff implications during its most important stretch.
It didn’t take long for Twitter to erupt when Len ended up being a difference maker. The smartest Suns fans had already known Len had showed flashes of potential during his limited NBA minutes this season, but most were still firmly implanted on the “Alex Len Is A Draft Bust OMG Why Did We Draft Him?” bandwagon. Over the games final nine minutes, Len tallied six points, two rebounds, an assist, a block and finished +10 for the game. His biggest play came with 54 seconds left when he finished a ridiculous tip in for a three-point play to put Phoenix up three.
The impact of the moment was not lost on anyone who saw the way the rest of the Suns reacted to Len’s huge play. Goran Dragic gave an epic fist pump before running to high five him, the bench erupted and even Hornacek could be seen on the instant replay dropping some happy expletives of praise for the Ukrainian rookie. Everyone wants to see this guy stay healthy and succeed, but given his flashes of brilliance and the waning excitement over Plumlee’s game, is it time to consider starting Alex Len?
The stats aren’t kind to Len, but taking them with a grain of salt is a smart approach given how many games Len has sat out, the fact that he’s a rookie and the fact that he’s been rehabbing those ankles. But even looking at the Per 36 Minutes numbers confirms that Plumlee is, as of right now, the smarter choice.
Per 36 Minutes:
There are a couple of key things to point out here. Not only is Plumlee superior in every single category except for free throw percentage, but the chances of Len even making it to 36 minutes in a game doesn’t look likely given his knack for racking up foul trouble in a hurry. Last I checked, a player is only allowed to commit six fouls in a given game, which means Len averaging 7.1 fouls per 36 minutes would keep him sidelined and would also hurt the Suns by constantly putting opponents on the free throw line.
The fact that we’re even having this discussion is good news for Suns fans (like myself) who immediately questioned the decision to draft a seven-footer with ankle problems, but it’s also ridiculous since Plumlee’s breakout season (his second year in the NBA, by the way) is far more impressive than anything Len has shown us so far. The frustration with Plumlee is understandable, since Sky Miles’ numbers have plummeted over the past three months from 9.8 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in December to 6.0 points, 6.8 boards and 0.6 blocks in March.
But even with Len’s clutch play Friday night and the signs he’s starting to show, it’s too early to pull the trigger on a lineup switch like that. The worry that Plumlee has already shown us the best he has to offer is real, but with experience comes consistency. And since Len hasn’t logged more than 22 minutes or even reached double digit scoring in a single game this season, moving him into the starting lineup isn’t a smart move for a team still chasing a playoff spot. Until Len can log big minutes and reach double digit rebounding more than once in 31 games, the Suns are making the right move keeping Plumlee on the floor.