Maryland coach Mark Turgeon took the two little turtle figurines out of his coat pocket and placed them on the table in front of him. Alex Len, whose mother Juliya had given Turgeon the figurines when her then 18-year-old son first committed to the Terps, sat at the coach’s side.
One of the figurines represented a baby turtle, the other one fully grown.
“She said I am giving Alex to you as a baby, when he leaves here I want him to be a man,” Turgeon recalled Tuesday after Len announced he was leaving Maryland to make himself eligible for the NBA draft. “He has grown up a lot.
“In two years I have never seen a kid learn a language, learn the game — the European game is a lot different than ours — and just the way he has progressed. I don’t think I have ever been around a player who has progressed as much as Alex has as quickly as he has.”
The 7-1, 255-pound sophomore from Ukraine won’t turn 20 until mid-June, but is expected to be a lottery pick — and along with Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel — one of the top centers taken in this year’s NBA draft.
After starting and finishing his sophomore year strong — including a 23-point, 12-rebound, four-blocked shot performance in a season-opening loss to Noel and the defending champion Wildcats, as well as averaging 15.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 5.5 blocks in his team’s last two games in the NIT — Len declared himself ready for the NBA.
"I’m excited. It’s going to be a huge step,” said Len, who averaged 11.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocked shots for the Terps last season. “The post in the NBA is a different game and I’m ready for that. I’m just ready to work hard. ... The last two years I came here, I learned a lot and really improved.”
Len said he didn’t think about his decision until after the Terps finished the season with a loss in the NIT semifinals to Iowa at Madison Square Garden in New York.
After talking with his family as well as with Turgeon, Len said, “…we came to the conclusion that the right time was now.” Len went on to thank Turgeon and his assistants, his teammates, the administration, the academic support staff, the administration and the fans.
“I am very blessed and thankful to have had the opportunity to be a Terp,” Len said, reading from a statement. “I want to thank the Maryland basketball family for welcoming me with open arms and for helping me become the person I am today.”
Said Turgeon: “He’s special. I talked to a couple NBA guys yesterday that had really high picks and I told them, ‘Don’t mess up. I think he can be the No. 1 pick.’ They’re talking about the other guy [Noel] being No. 1, and you guys saw the same game I saw when we played them earlier in the year. This kid’s going to be special.”
Turgeon, who often seemed frustrated by Len’s lapses in intensity and production during the season, said Tuesday that he expects Len to be a better NBA player than he was a college player and that Len wasn’t able to show all parts of his game as a Terp, in particular his ability to shoot from the outside.
“It just seems like yesterday that he walked into our office. It was August of our first year here,” Turgeon said. “This big 7-foot skinny kid walks in. He knows very little English, and less than two years later he is going to put his name in the draft and most likely be a lottery pick. I think top 10 pick before it is all said and done. ... The reason the NBA is so intrigued and I know he is going to be a great pro is that he is only 19. I can’t imagine where he is going to be when he is 23.”
Asked if he looks forward to playing against defenses that don’t double team — and sometimes triple team — him, Len smiled.
“Exactly,” he said.