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Terps Trio: Alex Len, next Maryland NBA player, football recruiting in Pa.

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Baltimore Sun reporters Jeff Barker and Don Markus and editor Matt Bracken weigh in on the three biggest topics of the past week in Maryland sports.

What are your most prominent memories of Alex Len's Maryland career?

Jeff Barker: First, some thoughts on Len’s new employer, the Phoenix Suns. This is a franchise in transition. They’re a season removed from the Steve Nash era and parted ways with coach Alvin Gentry in January. The current coach, Jeff Hornacek, was a popular player with the Suns (among other teams) who hadn’t previously been a head coach.

If you’re an Alex Len fan, your best hope is that Len and the franchise grow together. My former employer, the Arizona Republic, said that the selection of Len "sparks speculation that the Suns will trade center Marcin Gortat." 

Phoenix fans are more forgiving than those of some NBA teams, but they are eager for a winner. I asked my former Republic colleague Bill Goodykoontz (@goodyk) how he would describe Suns fans. “With temps at 118 this weekend, overheated. Otherwise frustrated,” he replied.

My Len memories? 

I can’t shake the memory of Len at his first Maryland Madness in 2011. During his introduction to fans, he did a cartwheel, steadied himself and caught a lob pass from a teammate that he rammed home for a dunk. He does a pregame drill in which he sits on the floor with his legs apart -- as if stretching -- and nimbly dribbles a ball with his fingertips. The ball never seems to rise more than in inch off the floor.

My early conclusion: this is an extraordinary athlete for a 7-footer. He is absolutely still learning the game but was a gymnast as a kid, and his coordination shows.

Before Len ever played in a college game, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon told me that the center was a potential lottery pick.

I will also remember the image of Len with girlfriend Essence Townsend, a 6-foot-7 center on the Maryland women's basketball team.

Townsend once told me: "One of our teammates Googled ‘tallest couple in the world' and they were like 7-feet and 6-4, so we beat them."

I will also remember Len outplaying Nerlens Noel in last season’s opener against Kentucky. And his excitement when he made the first 3-pointer of his college career on his eighth attempt.

It happened in the ACC tournament. “My first American 3!” he said proudly. 

After the Phoenix Suns’ selection of Alex Len, who will be the next Maryland player drafted into the NBA and how high can he go?

Don Markus: Considering the current makeup of the Terps in terms of skill set, size and age, it is fair to say that there are no future lottery picks looming on the horizon. In fact, there is not a single player being mentioned in 2014 mock drafts in either of the first two rounds.

Of Mark Turgeon’s current players, I think the players who will get the most attention from scouts next season should be Dez Wells, Jake Layman and Evan Smotrycz. That’s not to say any of them will be looking to leave College Park in 2014.

Wells certainly has the most athleticism of his teammates and more of an NBA body or game right now. As I watched the 2013 draft unfold Thursday night, I kept thinking whether Wells would have been picked in the second round.  I think he might have, considering that Glen Rice Jr. was drafted. 

But Wells has to work on his ballhandling and outside shot – particularly his 3-point range – to have any legitimate chance to play in the NBA. I’ve talked with a number of NBA scouts who are wowed by some of the plays Wells makes – particularly defensively at the rim – but are mixed in their opinion on whether he is a sure-fire NBA player.

When Len went on his interviews with a number of NBA teams, he was asked repeatedly about Layman, according to those privy to some of those conversations. That’s not to say Layman, who came on strong toward the second half of his freshman year, will make the jump from an inconsistent player who showed flashes of being a star – the first half of the ACC opener against Virginia Tech comes to mind – to someone who is ready to come out after his sophomore year.

Smotrycz is certainly an intriguing prospect, not only for Terps fans to watch, but for NBA scouts to follow.

At 6-9 and 230 pounds, with a much better-than-average 3-point shot, Smotrycz plays what has become a key position in the age of “small ball” – a stretch 4.  He averaged double digits as a sophomore two years ago at Michigan and might have been the difference in the national championship game for the Wolverines.

But Smotrycz could be just a smaller version of Duke’s Ryan Kelly, who went in the second round. I think next season is going to be huge for Smotrycz to prove what he can do at the defensive end, given that he had a reputation of being something of a liability at that end when he was in Ann Arbor. 

Of the remaining Terps, a number of Turgeon’s players have pro potential – but are for the time being considered more likely to wind up playing overseas or in the NBDL than in the NBA right away. If there’s a Terp who will be a lottery pick like Len, he hasn’t committed to Turgeon yet.

But after Len went with the fifth pick overall, one of those might not be too far away. 

The Maryland football program landed three commitments this week, including two defensive players – defensive lineman Brett Kulka and linebacker Tyler Burke – from Pennsylvania. What can be expected from those players?

Matt Bracken: The offer sheets for Kulka, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound prospect from General McLane High in Edinboro, Pa., and Burke, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound player from Coatesville (Pa.) Area Senior High, could not be more different. Kulka had several MAC offers before pledging to the Terps, while Burke selected UM over several ACC and Big East schools.

But one important similarity between the future Terps is their flexibility.

“Both of these kids are versatile prospects,” said Brian Dohn, Scout.com’s Northeast recruiting analyst. “When I say that, when you’re recruiting kids, you want the next stud, but you also want a kid who can play multiple positions, so if one position doesn’t work out, he can play another position. To me, [Kulka is] interesting because he goes in at this point as a defensive lineman. I look at him as a D-tackle. Everything I’ve seen, they play a 3-4. He plays with his hand on the ground. He’s a kid who would be a 3-technique D-tackle. … Again, I look at him like, OK, if D-tackle doesn’t work out, I can see him playing guard. It depends on his length, [but he] could grow into an offensive tackle.”

Dohn said Kulka, who is unranked by Scout.com and Rivals.com, is “not a freak athlete.” That mostly explains why the Maryland commitment didn’t have more BCS-level interest. But Dohn understands why the Terps pursued him.

“I think you hope that strength wise, he puts on some pounds and plays inside, can withstand some pounding,” Dohn said. “To me, I kind of look at him, I like him best as an offensive guard. Coming in to play D-line, my guess is he’ll go to D-tackle. At 6-5, 235, he can play at 260, 270 early on. On defense, they play in a 3-4 and he plays on the end. He gets off the ball really well for his size. The question is how well he can change direction and run down players from behind.”

Burke, meanwhile, could also play a variety of different spots. The first time Dohn saw him play, he pegged him as a tight end in college. The next time, Burke looked like more of a defensive end to the Scout analyst. And then Dohn saw Burke’s Coatesville squad play in the Pennsylvania Class AAAA championship game.

“I saw enough that made me say he’s got a chance to play middle linebacker in college. I think he can do that,” Dohn said. “It’s just a situation of playing speed wise, depending on how they use him. The way defenses are playing, [you can] move him to strongside linebacker to cover a tight end. I think it’s just going to be how well he can adjust. Can he chase plays down from the linebacker spot? I have no idea. He can play somewhere.”

With Kulka, Burke and Spring Grove (Pa.) defensive lineman David Shaw now part of Maryland’s 2014 recruiting class, it seems clear that the Terps are spending plenty of time targeting Pennsylvania players. Neither Burke nor Kulka was offered by Penn State, but I asked Dohn if Maryland has benefitted, in part, from the Nittany Lions' probation and limited scholarships.

“I don’t know if that’s the case, because Penn State has gone after a bunch of skill kids,” Dohn said. “They took the best [defensive backs] from Maryland, [Gilman’s] Troy Vincent and [Wise’s] Marcus Allen. To me, if I’m Maryland, I’m a little concerned that Penn State is coming in and getting two kids like that. If Penn State was focusing on linemen, especially Pa., kids, I don’t know if those kids are going to be taking Maryland over Penn State, with what’s going on in recruiting. There’s no reason to believe that will happen.”

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

don.markus@baltsun.com

mbracken@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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