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.
Is Alex Len definitely leaving for the NBA and has his status gone up after he finished the season strong in the NIT?
Don Markus: While the sophomore from the Ukraine has not given any indication of what he plans to do, Mark Turgeon and the Maryland coaching staff have assumed all season that this would be Len's last in College Park. He has until April 16 to contact the NBA with his intentions, and I expect we will hear next week what is going to happen.
Len is considered by many to be a surefire lottery pick, possibly a Top 5 pick. Had the 7-1 center played for most of the ACC season as he did in Maryland's last two NIT games – averaging 15.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 5.5 blocked shots – against Alabama and Iowa, the Terps would have likely made the NCAA tournament.
That said, by his team not making the NCAA tournament, Len might have seen his NBA draft status go up because a couple of other big men – in particular Cody Zeller of Indiana – saw their stock fall. Depending on the mock draft you read, I've seen Len go as high as No. 7 to the Minnesota Timberwolves and as low as No. 11 to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Perhaps the most interesting scenario I've seen is Len going No. 10 to the Oklahoma City Thunder, which acquired a draft choice between fourth and 14 from the Toronto Raptors, who are currently eighth from the bottom of the league's overall standings.
Len's stock, despite his erratic play this season, has apparently never wavered among the NBA scouts who regularly attended games at Comcast Center as well as on the road. Though he is viewed by all of them as a project, his athleticism for a player his size and the fact that he does have some range on his jumper makes him desirable among NBA coaches and general managers.
There are a few scouts who are worried that Len might turn out to be another Nikoloz Tskitishvili, a 7-footer who was the fifth overall pick of the Denver Nuggets in 2002 and averaged less than three points and two rebounds in a 172-game career.
When I mentioned the name Darko Milicic, who was infamously picked by the Detroit Pistons behind LeBron James and ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in 2003, a scout who played in the league said, "Darko didn't want to play basketball. You can see Alex does."
Among the big men like Len who are supposed to come out this year, Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel was badly outplayed by Len when their teams met at the beginning of the year. There are questions about Noel now that he is rehabbing after ACL surgery, but he is projected by most in the top five, including No. 1 overall by some.
There are major questions about Zeller after last week's performance in Washington against Syracuse. Syracuse's athletic frontcourt made the Indiana sophomore look soft and slow. Because the Hoosiers lost, there are also questions about whether Zeller will come back for his junior year, as brother Tyler did at North Carolina.
While Kelly Olynyk of Gonzaga received a lot of attention as a player of the year candidate, and didn't do anything to hurt his draft status despite his No. 1-seeded team's abbreviated stay in the NCAA tournament, the 7-foot junior is considered more of an athletic big forward than a true back-to-the-basket center.
I would love to see Len come back for another year to team with Dez Wells, Jake Layman and Evan Smotrycz, the transfer from Michigan sitting out this season, to give the Terps a big and athletic team, but all indications are that he is coming out. Given how much money is at stake and the possibility of a freak injury – look at Louisville's Kevin Ware – you can't blame him.
How will Maryland fare in the front court next season if Alex Len departs?
Jeff Barker: I've talked to Maryland about this. The short answer is that the Terps will be fine -- there are reinforcements -- but you can't quite replace a 7-1, shot-blocking center defensively.
For all the criticism Len took from fans, having him guard the basket allowed Maryland to gamble defensively at the perimeter. Len could be a terrific last line of defense. Sure, he was too passive at times. But he also had periods where he would not only rebound, but affect opponent's shots – and the outcomes of games – in ways that didn't show up in box scores.
It also helped Maryland – think of the ACC tournament game against North Carolina – that Len has the ability to get to the foul line and to convert during critical periods.
While Len is likely to leave, those who know him don't consider it a painless decision. He loves Maryland. While he's intelligent, he's still a kid at heart. He enjoys hanging out with his teammates, going to Chipotle. He likes college. But it would be hard to resist the lure of NBA money.
A key in Maryland's transition will be Evan Smotrycz. Maryland says the 6-9 Michigan transfer is potentially a Ryan Kelly type – big enough to cause some trouble down low but a matchup problem for opponents because of his 3-point shooting. Maryland coaches believe they can plug in Smotrycz right away because he has college experience and has been practicing with the team.
Incoming forward Damonte Dodd seemed to have improved quite a bit in his last year before college. It'll be interesting to see whether Dodd can earn substantial playing time.
Among the frontcourt returnees, Jake Layman seemed to take a step up during the season. A key will be how quickly the other two big frontcourt returnees – Charles Mitchell and Shaquille Cleare – can elevate their games. They are both big, bruising players who will be working on post moves and finishing around the basket.
Bottom line: Assuming he leaves, Len will be replaced "by committee."
Speaking of this big man "by committee" approach, what can reasonably be expected of incoming freshman Damonte Dodd?
Matt Bracken: There was plenty of room for improvement in Dodd's game as he transitioned from Eastern Shore high school basketball to one of the top post-grad programs in the country. It was the job of Massanutten Military Academy's Chad Myers to facilitate that improvement. Naturally, the prep-school coach spoke glowingly of Dodd when I talked to him this week about the future Terp. Here's what I gleaned from the interview that didn't make this blog post.
Perhaps the most obvious difference for Dodd was fitting in on a team with four other high-major players, as opposed to the 6-foot-9 post player dominating guys a fraction of his size in high school. The other starters in Massanutten's lineup will play next year at Kansas, Miami, Boston College and Utah. So Dodd, who didn't play high-level AAU ball until last summer with D.C. Assault, learned how to blend in with other talented players.
"I think it's helpful for him with all those guys. I started five high-major players," Myers said. "[They were] learning to play without the ball in their hands, learn where to be and find open guys. [Dodd] had some games where he really scored the ball for us. Maryland is going to have a lot more talented players. I think he'll be able to find his role much more easily."
From a developmental perspective, Dodd got stronger this year and worked on his post moves. Myers said Dodd is "much more polished" down low than he was a year ago. He's comfortable getting the ball on the block and shooting a right-handed jump hook. Athleticism was always what separated him from other big men, and playing with an up-tempo team like Massanutten, which scored "about 101 points per game," only enhanced that part of Dodd's game.
What were the other major improvements Myers saw in Dodd?
"I think the biggest thing is that he always showed flashes of doing things that were really, really impressive," Myers said. "Ball screens, jumping on everyone and dunking. He gets across the lane, help side, and blocks shots. He gets rebounds. The biggest thing we saw with him is he continued to get more consistent throughout the year. He would give us like eight or nine minutes there being really productive. He's got potential."
As Barker alluded to above, Dodd will certainly have a chance to flash some of that potential next season. Michigan transfer Evan Smotrycz will play big minutes no matter what, and he's an entirely different player than Dodd, Charles Mitchell and Shaquille Cleare. Dodd obviously wasn't as college ready as Mitchell and Cleare, which necessitated his post-grad year. But according to his coach, he can run, he can block shots, he has good size, and he can play with his back to the basket. If he can adequately do those things come fall, I don't see why he wouldn't be able to contribute at least 10 minutes or so per night as a freshman.