Alex Len was 13 years old, a gangly teenager whose body had been shooting up a startling pace from a young age. As he practiced gymnastics at a local school in the small, rural coal-mining town in Ukraine where he lived, Len was motioned over by a basketball coach walking by the room.
"He told me, 'You don't belong there,'" Len recalled with a smile one afternoon last week.
The coach invited him to practice with the basketball team. Having been told he was too tall for gymnastics and soccer, Len soon embarked on a journey that could reach a remarkable crossroad Thursday night, some seven years later and thousands of miles from where he lived with his mother, older sister, grandparents and an aunt.
Two years after coming to the U.S. to play at Maryland, the 7-foot-1, 255-pound center could become the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers. If that happens, Len would become the first Eastern European ever taken with the top pick and the first Maryland player to achieve that honor since Joe Smith in 1995.
"I always wanted to come to America and play college basketball," Len said, a lot more comfortable with the language and his surroundings than when he arrived knowing only a few words of English. "I thought it was the best position for a European player to come to college, because you have to learn the language here so the adjustment would be easier than coming from Europe straight to the NBA."
The draft will be held at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., the same building where last November Len started a rapid ascent by badly outplaying Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel, who despite tearing his ACL last season has been mentioned prominently as the potential No. 1 pick.
Despite being inconsistent throughout his sophomore year with the Terps, Len's size and offensive skills — "He's light years ahead of Noel offensively," one NBA executive said recently — has several other teams hoping the Cavaliers pass on Len. It seems unlikely that Len will last past the first six picks, with the Charlotte Bobcats (No. 4), Phoenix Suns (No. 5) and New Orleans Hornets (No. 5) all mentioned.
If Len started dreaming about this moment after watching old tapes of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, the process of joining a small group of his countrymen to have played in the NBA seriously began two years after being told to give up the pommel horse and high beam.
At 15, Len left his close-knit family and moved six hours away to a much larger city in Ukraine to play at a school that "played in a lot of big tournaments" and sent its top players to the junior national team. Two years after that, Len was at Maryland after being initially recruited by Robert Ehsan, an assistant under Gary Williams, on Facebook.
"To leave the country and come over here took a lot of guts. It was a big risk for him," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said.
Said Len: "It was tough. Probably the first three months, it was pretty hard. But then it got better, the words started to click, I started to understand the language better."
Mike Lelchitski, Len's Russian-born, Gaithersburg-based agent, can relate to what Len went through, having come to the U.S. as a young child when his father, Boris, a prominent women's basketball coach in Russia, moved the family to Columbia, S.C., to get his associate's degree. The elder Lelchitski started Sports International Group more than a decade ago, but Len is its first major NBA client.
"It's hard to be yourself. You have an accent, you're not saying things right, you're trying to be like everyone else," Mike Lelchitski said of Len's adjustment to the U.S. "To recognize that this is the best choice to send your son across the world and then to follow through with it, it shows what kind of people they are."
Even while sitting out the first 10 games of his college career after the NCAA questioned his amateur status, Len quickly gained a reputation for being one of the hardest workers Turgeon had on and off the court.
"Alex didn't grow up with an entourage. He's had to work hard for everything," Turgeon said recently.
Along with a strong work ethic developed by watching his grandfather rise from being a coal miner to running the mine in the family's hometown, Len has a maturity that seems to stand out despite the fact that he just turned 20 last week.
"I don't think there's any question that he has more maturity because of what he's been through," Turgeon said. "I think he's beyond his years maturity-wise. As he's learned the languague, you notice it.
"When he first got here, you couldn't notice it. He was so shy and didn't know the language. As he's progressed and he's gained confidence the last two years, you can see how mature he is and how he's ready for this next step."
Unlike many prospective lottery picks, Len continued to attend class throughout last season despite knowing that he was going to leave school after his sophomore year. He is currently taking two classes online and has promised his mother that he will eventually graduate.
The 28-year-old Lelchitski said that he was "very pleasantly surprised" at how well Len has handled the rehabilitation after undergoing surgery in early May. While the prognosis included a four-to-six month recovery, Len has vowed to be ready for training camp.
"He's been proactive throughout his entire process," Lelchitski said. "Usually when you tell a kid he doesn't have to have surgery and it can heal on its own [he will not have surgery]. … But you're dealing with the timing of the draft. He was very mature about it.
"Once he felt comfortable with all the facts, he said pretty matter of factly, 'This is the best thing for me, I'm worried about what I can be down the line.' For a 19-year-old kid to act that way, it was great. It just shows his character."
Though most, including Turgeon, believed early last season that Len would leave school this spring, Lelchitski said Len told him it wasn't that clear cut.
"He's just a diligent kid. He wants to get all the facts," Lelchitski said. "It was clear to me that was his biggest goal in life, to get to the NBA. But I think he's the type of kid who wants to get all his facts straight, to get the right information and then make a call.
"His mother is the same way. She didn't even want to talk about it. Like wish it and it would not come true. Whenever you have someone who is highly regarded as Alex, it would almost be bad for you to tell him not to take an opportunity like this."
Despite the skeptics who believe that Len will be another Eastern European who can't cut it in the NBA — regardless of the two years he spent playing college basketball — Turgeon and Lelchitski say there is a correlation between Len's top performances and the competition he faced in those games.
Len had his best all-around game (23 points, 12 rebounds, four blocked shots) against Noel in the season opener, had two strong games against Mason Plumlee in wins over Duke, and despite feeling substantial pain in his foot, averaged 15.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 5.5 blocked shots in Maryland's final two NIT games, against Alabama and Iowa.
"I think he's at his best when he's got a challenge in front of him. That's just being part of being 18 or 19," Lelchitski said. "He responds to it, whether it's a Nerlens Noel or a Mason Plumlee. The injury is another obstacle in his way and he's already overcome so many of them."
How many No. 1 draft picks ever walked on a balance beam?