PHOENIX — When the Cleveland Cavaliers surprised everyone by selecting Anthony Bennett with the first overall pick in the NBA Draft, a sense of excitement rushed through the Suns war room in Phoenix.
The pick by the Cavs was the beginning of a wild first round which defied mock draft boards everywhere, and ensured that plenty of top talent would still be available by the time it was the Suns’ turn to draft with the fifth selection.
While plenty of interesting players were still available, including Nerlens Noel and Ben McLemore, Phoenix didn’t need its full five minutes to make its selection.
The man they wanted all along was Alex Len.
“We feel like Alex was one of the top players in this draft,” Suns GM Ryan McDonough said late Thursday. “He’s a guy who just turned 20 years old, he’s seven-foot one, he’s extremely skilled, he’s had good success at the college level, but we think he’s just scratching the surface of his potential as a player. And we were thrilled to get him at five.”
As recently as the day before the draft, Len was rumored to be at the top of the Cavaliers’ board, just as he was at the top of the Suns’. But once Cleveland took Bennett and there were some additional early draft surprises, even with Noel and McLemore still around, there was no debate on who to select within the Phoenix front office.
“When Alex was there, the decision was clear,” McDonough said. “[The draft] was very unpredictable, and I think everybody, starting at number one with Cleveland, nobody seemed to be really sure what they were doing, even when they were on the clock. So it didn’t give us a whole lot of time to prepare — frankly, I thought Alex would be gone in the first four picks, because we did have him ranked higher than where he was picked at five.”
McDonough has known Len for quite some time, at least from a basketball perspective. He’s been scouting him all over the world since Len was 17 years old.
“I was in Vilnius, Lithuania to see the under-18 European championships in the summer of 2010,” McDonough said, recalling the first time he saw Len play. “The gym was about 117 degrees; I think there were 32 people there. I didn’t know Alex, and the kid came out blocking shots above the rim and rebounding. He’s improved a lot since then, but you could see the raw physical package.”
The Suns flew Len in for a pre-draft workout, though no working out took place due to the stress fracture he’s been dealing with for some time. The team met with Len and interviewed him, and had their medical staff check him out to make sure he would be fit for duty at some point this season.
Len said on a conference call with reporters that he expects to resume basketball activities in August, and should be ready for training camp in October — a timetable McDonough cautiously confirmed, while making it clear that the Suns medical staff will do a more complete evaluation of their top pick in the coming days.