Five years is typically not that long in a young man’s life.
And it might seem that way to Len, still only 25, when it comes to the start of his NBA career. Despite many retirees flocking to Phoenix to extend their lives, Len’s five seasons with the Suns nearly shortened his life professionally.
That changed last summer, when Len signed a two-year, $8.5 million deal with the Atlanta Hawks. While he went from one perennially rebuilding team to another just starting that process, the culture seems a lot different.
“It’s good to have a fresh start,” Len said last Monday when the Hawks played the Washington Wizards at Capital One Arena. “We’ve got a great coaching staff, and you can just see the direction this team is going.
“This team is going in the right direction. We play with a purpose every night. I don’t think we had that in Phoenix the last couple of years. With this year, you see we have a nice young corps and we’ve been playing the right way.”
After the Suns took the 7-foot-1 Len with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2013 draft — one more notable now for the players who didn’t make it, like top pick Anthony Bennett, than those who did — ankle injuries delayed Len’s progress.
A left ankle injury, suffered during his sophomore year at Maryland, was part of the reason he left early. The summer he went to Phoenix, he injured his right ankle and underwent a second surgery before his rookie year.
“I definitely had to go,” Len recalled. “I had an injured ankle. If I had gone back to Maryland with a broken ankle, I didn’t how it would respond. If I had an off-year [as a junior], I might never had been drafted.”
The injuries, Len said Monday, “set me back for about a year.” It reflected in his performance. In 42 games with the Suns, he averaged 2.0 points, 2.4 rebounds and 0.4 blocks while playing less than nine minutes a game.
His decision to leave Maryland early also had to do with the unstable political situation in his native Ukraine. His mother, Julia, and a sister moved to the United States. His grandparents remain in Ukraine, but Len bought them a house far from the strife.
“It was crazy, I had to move my grandparents out of the war zone,” he said. “Everybody’s safe. Everybody’s good.”
That’s not to say there wasn’t some craziness in Len’s professional life. Len played under three coaches — Jeff Hornacek for his first three seasons was the longest — with a revolving cast of teammates, including more than a dozen point guards.
After the Suns went 48-34 during Len’s rookie year, the team averaged a shade over 23 wins a year his last four seasons there. General manager Ryan McDonough, who was hired a month before drafting Len, was fired four months ago.
Second-year Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk has been pleased by Len’s contributions in Atlanta. Playing mostly behind fellow five-year veteran Dewayne Dedmon, Len has averaged a career-high 10.2 points and 5.7 rebounds in a little over 19 minutes a game.
“Alex has been great,” Schlenk said recently. “He doesn’t have the athleticism, but he’s got pure size. He’s a very hard worker. He’s probably in the weight room more than anybody on our roster. He’s always working on his body.”
While his playing time is often dictated by matchups — in a league that has been trending toward smaller lineups for several years, 7-footers often find themselves on the bench — Len has found a way to contribute.
“He’s had some really big games for us, just being big in the middle,” Schlenk said. “He played hard every night. He’s a great kid. Those are the kinds of guys that we’re going to take chances on, for where we are.
“Guys that have been in ‘bad’ situations where they’ve had a bunch of coaching turnover, maybe not the greatest player development programs in place and hopefully we can get ’em here, they’re just undervalued commodities so to speak.”
Mike Lelchitski, who has been Len’s agent since the player left Maryland, said the move to Atlanta “has been a breath of fresh air” for his client. Being part of this rebuilding process just seems different.
“It’s tough to be a top pick and have the expectations and then feel you don’t really have the opportunity to prove yourself, and the development staff,” Lelchitski said Monday.
“In this situation they have great team chemistry. [Coach] Lloyd Pierce is known as a development guy, and he’s got a good staff around him. The first thing he did for Alex is tell him that he’s free to shoot the ball [from the perimeter].”
Except for occasional flareups with his back, Len is probably in the best shape of his career. Though the Hawks, like the Suns, are rebuilding, the rookie backcourt of two first-round picks, Trae Young and former Maryland standout Kevin Huerter, gives some hope.
“I feel it’s progressed well,” Len said. “My body’s feeling good. I feel l like I’m coming into my own. I’ve been better with balance, just finishing at the rim. Coaches let me shoot [outside]. It definitely helped me to expand my game.”
Said Schlenk: “I think Alex has really taken a step forward here from what he’s done in the past. He was 24 [when he signed with the Hawks]; now he’s 25. We just felt there was more there than what we’ve seen in the NBA.”
Len seems to take the move to a new city in stride.
“I went to a boarding school when I was 13. Since I was a little kid I always changed schools all the time, then I went to Maryland and then I went to Phoenix, so it’s like part of the journey,” he said. “It’s part of the business. Some guys change teams their whole career, and play on 10 different teams. It’s part of the job.”