Life is good again for Alex Len. The ankle injury that caused him so much pain toward the end of his two-year career at Maryland has healed. His new team, the Phoenix Suns, has been the biggest surprise in the NBA this season.
His progress slowed by surgery on both ankles — the first to repair the stress fracture he suffered last season in College Park, the other as a precaution — Len is finally healthy and finding his role on a team in the hunt for a playoff spot.
After playing in only four of the team's first 32 games, Len has slowly made his way into first-year coach Jeff Hornacek's rotation, playing behind former Duke star Miles Plumlee and, if the Suns go to a smaller lineup, Channing Frye.
"It's been crazy, ups and downs, but it's been fun, for sure," Len said before Wednesday's game against the Washington Wizards. "Nobody expected us play that great; right now it's all about playoffs."
The Suns entered Wednesday's night game, a half-game out of eighth place in the NBA's top-heavy Western Conference. The Suns (43-29) defeated the Wizards, 99-93, while Len played a little over four minutes in the second quarter, getting one blocked shot and a rebound
In some ways, getting less playing time than he might have expected could be a blessing for Len as he recovered from ankle surgeries last summer and adjusted to the pro game.
"This year with my ankles, it's definitely good not to put too much stress on them," Len said. "It's been a learning experience, the game is a little different. But it's been a great year. When you win, it's always exciting and everyone's having fun. Everyone is getting along with each other."
In the long run, Len might have been better off going to a team like the Suns, who were expected to be at the bottom of the league.
"You see that a lot where guys are thrown on a losing team and they say, 'Go get your numbers' and they get in bad habits and they lose confidence," Hornacek said. "I know that it's tough on young guys when they don't get many minutes, but they're learning a lot from practicing against our veteran guys. He's shown us that as we come down the stretch we can use him. If teams have big guys we're not afraid to put him in there at all."
Despite measly stats — 2.3 points and 2.4 rebounds in a little over eight minutes a game — progress is being made for a player chosen fifth overall in last June's draft.
"In the beginning it was hard to tell because he had the foot issues," Hornacek said. "Now that his foot feels better, you can tell he moves much better. I think he's got a good feel for the game. He's smart, and he's got smart basketball instincts. And he's getting stronger. When he puts that all together he's going to be a great player."
Said Lon Babby, the Suns' president of basketball operations: "He's progressing quite well. We spent a lot of time taking our time making sure he was healthy. He helped us win a game the other night when he had a put-back and a three-point play. He's a hard worker and you have to remind yourself every once in a while that he's 20 years old. He's a great listener, he's got a great work ethic and he's got a lot of want-to in him."
Len has recently demonstrated flashes of the player the Suns hope he will become. In a win against the Orlando Magic last week, Len scored nine points, tieing his season high, in 11 minutes — including a critical three-point play in the fourth quarter. Two nights later, Len blocked three shots in 13 minutes in a win over the Detroit Pistons.
Despite the limited role, Len doesn't second-guess his decision to leave Maryland. He also believes that the more wide-open NBA game will eventually suit him better than the one he played in college, where he was often double- and triple-teamed in the post.
"It's easier to get open for a jump shot," said Len, who signed a two-year contract for a reported $7.14 million. "The spacing for bigs is better, when you play pick and roll and you roll, it's so much easier because the spacing is better."
Said Hornacek, "He's a good passer, we'll be able to use him in passing situations, he can pick and pop. At some point in the next few years he'll probably be a 3-point threat. Right now the game is pretty fast for him. The gaps close a lot quicker now. That's something all young guys get used to and he'll get better as years go on."
Len still has emotional ties to College Park. He was there Tuesday night at Comcast Center to support the women's team — and his girlfriend, 6-7 senior center Essence Townsend — in its win over Texas in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
"I've been watching them, they played great basketball at the end of the season, they just got out slow because they didn't have Seth Allen," Len said. Allen's injury "hurt them at the beginning of the season. I'm sure they're going to work hard over the summer."
Len, born in Ukraine,was looking forward to returning after Wednesday's game to his new home in the suburbs of Phoenix, the appropriately named community of Paradise Valley. His mother, Juliya, has relocated there and his grandparents are now visiting from his war-torn country.
"It's been tough, right now Crimea became part of Russia, I still have family in Crimea, now they've become Russians and you need a visa to get there," Len said. "I just want peace. I don't want no war. I don't want people to get hurt."
His new home is a lot different than his old one in College Park as well, especially considering the winter that it is still not over.
"It's really nice, it's like 80s or 90s in the winter time, it's perfect," he said with a smile.