COLLEGE PARK -- No one knew quite what to make of Alex Len when he arrived at the University of Maryland a year ago.
On the one hand, he was a 7-foot-1 center with enough athletic ability to execute a perfect cartwheel before dunking the basketball at Maryland's Midnight Madness celebration.
On the other, he was a kid who spoke so little English that he sometimes struggled with coaching instructions, who appeared timid when jostled by the well-muscled inside players of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
In his second season, however, the towering Ukrainian has put many of those doubts behind him. From the moment he outplayed Kentucky's bevy of NBA prospects in Maryland's season opener, Len has been a consistent and formidable presence on both sides of the floor.
The Terps' leader in points per game (13.9), rebounds per game (8.8) and blocked shots per game (2.6), he has improved so substantially that analysts regularly describe him as one of the best big men in college basketball. More recently, they've begun to promote him as — get this — a possible No. 1 overall pick in next year's draft.
"Len made himself a lot of money," ESPN draft analyst Chad Ford said of the Maryland center's 23-point, 12-rebound effort against Kentucky that also included four blocked shots. "Scouts have been watching him ever since his strong performance in the under-18 European Championship in 2010. They've wanted to love him as they do most 7-1 big men. His inconsistent freshman season gave them pause, but his dramatic debut, against the NBA length and athleticism that Kentucky has, made a major impact."
Asked whether he believes Len will be in the mix for the top overall pick come late spring, Ford said, "I do."
"There are problems with every single top prospect this year," he said. "I think it will come down to who gets the No. 1 pick and what they need. If it's a team that really needs a true center like Cleveland or Orlando, he's got a great shot at being the No. 1 pick."
Jay Bilas, an ESPN college basketball analyst and former Duke star, rated Len as one of the top five big men in the country in a recent column, noting his improved strength, confidence and production.
Asked about Len's chances to be a top overall pick, Bilas said, "I still think we have a long way to go for all that."
He said there's no doubt Len is an NBA prospect but that his exact position in a weak 2013 draft shouldn't be anyone's immediate focus.
"It's nice that he's getting talked about that way because it's a reflection of the improvements he's made," Bilas said. "But we're sitting here talking about the draft instead of what kind of player he's going to be long-term. The goal isn't to get drafted. It's to have success over a long period of time."
A quiet strength
Len, for one, professes little interest in his enhanced national profile. With his gangly frame and wisp of a mustache, he still looks every bit the teenager he is.
"I don't really watch TV," he said in rapidly improving English. "I don't have a computer anymore. I'm totally off the media stuff."
Terps coach Mark Turgeon also plays down the NBA talk — for now.
"That's just a bunch of dummies who've really never played basketball who do those mock drafts," he said. "With that said, does he have the talent? Yes. Has he worked hard and does he deserve the attention? Absolutely. He's worked as hard as any player I've ever coached."
Turgeon said he doesn't weigh Len's NBA prospects when he's coaching the 19-year-old from day to day.
"That's the least of our concern right now," he said. "Our concern is being the best team and Alex being the best player. I'm on Alex every day to make him the best player I can because I told his mom I would do that. Alex came to the States to play in the NBA. He had the confidence in me that I could help him get there. All I think about is making Alex better. I don't think where it's going to lead to."
Len has added 25 pounds and considerable strength since last season, and the changes are obvious in the way he plays. He scores mostly by shooting over shorter opponents near the basket; as a freshman, he wasn't able to hold his position in the paint to set up those shots consistently.
He acknowledged that he was bothered by the physicality of the American college game but said he takes it in stride these days.
"I've gotten a little bit stronger and more confident," he said. "I've just learned to play American-style."
Added teammate and fellow second-year player Nick Faust: "The only thing with Alex was putting on weight and getting stronger. He always had the skill. He always had the talent. So him putting on that weight, that's the biggest difference. Last year, guys could bump him off the post, make him change his shot. This year, he's too strong."
Faust, a former star at City, said Len deserves credit for his improvement because he "lives at the gym."
Len's best friend in developing inside toughness has been new Terps teammate Shaquille Cleare, who Turgeon says is as strong as any other player in college basketball.
"Shaq just beats on him every day," Turgeon said. "He can just hold Alex with one arm, and especially when he first got here, we let Shaq foul. And I think that's made Alex tougher and better as well. When he gets to the game, no one's as strong as Shaq."
Though he's only a freshman, Cleare gets a gleam in his eye when he talks about his practice battles with Len. He knows he's putting a potential top pick through trials by fire and that Len is, in turn, giving him lessons in how to play against a freakishly coordinated 7-footer.
"Whenever Alex goes to the NBA, if he forgets me, I'll be pretty upset," said a grinning Cleare. "I made him what he is this season. No one beats up on him like I do. Turgeon bails him out a lot, but I'm going to keep pushing Alex because I know he has the potential to be great."
From the inside out
The tantalizing, and sometimes maddening, thing about Len is that he can also handle the ball and shoot from outside. He says his high school coach in Ukraine encouraged him to shoot 3-pointers, and he names players such as Kevin Garnett and Pau Gasol, who flow easily from inside to outside, as his NBA idols.
Teammates such as Faust say they've never seen a player his size who dribbles, passes and shoots from outside so easily.
Turgeon, however, pushed Len to shift his focus inside when he arrived at Maryland.
"Alex was a finesse guy when he got here. He wanted to be a finesse guy," Turgeon said. "He's still a finesse guy, but he's also a power guy. He fought me on it. He still fights me on it. But if he wants to get [to the NBA], he needs to be both."
The two have reached a compromise this year, with Len permitted to shoot from outside if he's open. But during games, he doesn't always float naturally from the paint to the perimeter.
Against South Carolina State last weekend, he caught a pass at the top of the circle with no defenders in his vicinity. He took a hesitant dribble and then clanged a jumper off the rim. It looked as if he overthought the whole thing.
In the context of Len's NBA hopes, Ford said, any perimeter development is gravy.
"I'm not confident his face-up game is the real deal," the draft analyst said. "But compared to most young big men who are true centers, he has an advanced skill set facing the basket."
Bilas doesn't regard Len's outside game as essential.
"He's not Dirk Nowitzki, but so what?" he said. "I don't know that you want a guy his size playing the 3 spot. Most good big guys aren't great outside. If he can face up and hit a jump shot or make one trailing the break, that's about all you need."
Bilas and Ford agree that the next step for Len is to maintain his current level throughout the season.
He's already made great strides from last season, when he virtually disappeared for games at a time. He has scored in double figures in all but one game and is one of only a few players Turgeon said he trusts every night.
"Once conference play begins, and teams come in with great game plans around stopping him, how will he respond?" Ford said when asked what Len still has to show NBA scouts.
"He doesn't need to average 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds]. But if he can consistently net 16 and eight every night, in this draft, he's a top-five pick."