COLLEGE PARK — — Bulkier and more self-assured, Maryland center Alex Len appears poised for a breakout season after an uneven freshman year in which he said he struggled to adjust to the physical nature of the American game and to understand play calls because of his limited English.
"I didn't understand a lot of plays," the 7-foot-1, Ukraine-born player said Tuesday in his first interview since joining the Terps last year. "I wasn't getting it, so it was really hard. I was really like confused on the court. When I caught the ball I didn't know what to do. Now I feel more comfortable."
Len has gained 25 pounds since arriving on campus last season as a reserved, 18-year-old freshman who was reluctant to shoot in games. He developed so markedly over the summer — and became more fluent in English — that coach Mark Turgeon on Tuesday called him "a different Alex."
"He's close to being twice as good in the low post," Turgeon said. "He's much further along. He's got so much more game in him that we'll bring out."
Len's comfort level has increased on and off the court.
"American basketball, it was really hard to adjust — much more physical," Len said. He said he is more at ease with the language, his studies, being noticed by fans and his social life.
"Last year, I didn't know English, so people would come talk to me. It was…challenging. It was a little embarrassing," Len said.
He spoke haltingly at times — he can still be shy — but understood most of the questions from the media.
His adjustment to American life has been aided by senior Essence Townsend, a 6-foot-7 center on the women's basketball team who is from Paterson, N.J. "It's no secret" that the two are dating, she said. Len and Townsend have become Maryland's most recognizable couple.
"It's hard to miss us," she said. "One of our teammates Googled 'tallest couple in the world' and they were like 7-feet and 6-4, so we beat them."
They eat meals together when they can, shoot baskets together and play one-on-one.
"He loves Boston Market and Chipotle —and he loves salmon," she said. "He's like a big kid." They have explored the monuments in Washington and traveled to New York together, and she met Len's mother, who visited over the summer.
Townsend said Len's English has improved dramatically since they met at an ice cream social for Maryland athletes before last season.
"I pretty much went up to him and his teammates introduced me," Townsend said. "I was saying, 'Hi, I'm Essence.' "
Townsend laughs at what came next. She said she knew his English was not good, so she began raising her voice.
"It's kind of a funny story. I was talking really loud. Like he was deaf or something," she said.
He said his early struggles with a new language slowed his basketball maturation.Turgeon joked Tuesday that Len, his tallest player, "didn't understand a word I was saying."
Len, whose given first name is Olexiy, was not eligible immediately last season because of issues related to his amateur status. Before coming to Maryland, he had a stint with a club overseas.
Len made his regular-season debut against Albany on Dec. 28, hitting his first five shots — four of them dunks — in a 14-point, eight-rebound performance. But later he seemed to lose confidence. In a stretch of six late-season games, he never attempted more than five shots.He ended up starting 11 games as the team finished 17-15. He shot 55 percent and averaged 6.0 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.
Len has the coordination of much smaller player. During his introduction to fans at last season's Maryland Madness, 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.
In the offseason, Turgeon said he forged a compromise with Len.
"Last year, Alex would fight me — he wanted to be more of a finesse player than a power player," Turgeon said. "I know Alex is a finesse player. But I want Alex to be really successful after he leaves Maryland, so he quit fighting me on that stuff and so we're compromising. You'll see him shooting 3s this year. He'll really expand his game. But you'll also see a much better low-post player."
Len improved through conditioning and by practicing over the summer with first-year Maryland front court players Shaquille Cleare and Charles Mitchell, among others.
"I think he's a lot tougher," said John Auslander, Len's roommate and teammate. "He knows what he wants to do, he's more confident, more assertive. When he gets in the post, he's not in a rush."
Before he played basketball, Len was taught gymnastics as a boy in Ukraine. He said he liked gymnastics because he liked watching Jackie Chan films and saw how the actor moved.
"It was a really funny story because the high school (basketball) coach came to the gymnastics gym and he saw me," Len said. "I was the youngest one, but I was the tallest one. He said, 'What are you doing here?' He took me and just grabbed my hand, took me to the gym, gave me a ball and said, 'Shoot it.' "
Len made the shot. "The coach said, 'You see? You were born to play basketball,' " Len said.
Notes: Maryland announced that this season's Maryland Madness will be held at 7 p.m. Oct. 12 beginning at Comcast Center . Admission is free…Maryland recruit Sam Cassell Jr., who didn't qualify academically to play for Maryland after attending a Massachusetts prep school, is enrolling in junior college in Florida. He might still return to Maryland in the future.