Alex Len, No. 5 pick in a draft full of players who looked like busts as rookies, showing he doesn’t deserve the label

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BOSTON – Alex Len thought he finally made it.

After pre-draft surgery to his left ankle and post-draft surgery to his right ankle, Len – selected No. 5 overall by the Suns last yearwas cleared during training camp. He played in Phoenix’s first two games, carving out a role as the team’s backup center.

“I already thought, I’m back. From this point, I can just go up,” Len said. “I just – I went down again.”

Soreness in his left ankle caused Len to miss 28 of the next 30 games. He went more than a month without even practicing. His rookie season was turning into “probably one of the hardest years of my life.”

Coincidentally, his setback was timed with his mom’s move from Ukraine. She cooked his favorite – spaghetti, chicken and meatballs – while he rested.

“She helped me a lot, just to get through it,” Len said.

The home cooking apparently worked.

Now on other side of his injury-plagued rookie year, Len is quietly beginning to validate his selection as the No. 5 pick in the 2013 draft.

He’s averaging 6.4 points and on 60.0 percent shooting with 5.2 rebounds in 19.0 minutes per game. Although those numbers don’t jump off the page, they’re impressive in such limited playing time, and he’s outperforming Phoenix’s starting center, Miles Plumlee. It could be only a matter of time until the 21-year-old Len – five years younger than Plumlee – works his way into the starting lineup for the Suns (7-5).

Compared to his peers, Len is already setting himself apart.

Len’s lack of production last season contributed to a terrible showing by the rookie class. His PER (7.3) ranked seventh among the top 10 picks. He’s more than doubled it this year to 15.9, second among that group, behind only No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett.

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Even when he returned to play last season, Len wasn’t truly ready to compete.

“I was out of shape the whole year,” Len said.

Still, people labeled him a bust – though his teammates saw some else entirely.

“He has a will,” Markieff Morris said. “He just keeps going. He had a couple tough injuries, but he never stopped going. Just to get healthy, he worked so hard to get healthy.”

Said Eric Bledsoe: “He’s relentless.”

Now, its showing on the court.

Despite fracturing his finger during training camp, Len declared himself fully in shape now. He’s on pace to pass his minute total from last season by just Dec. 5.

One of the biggest differences from last year is Len’s ability to generate attempts in the paint. The percentage of his shots at the rim is up from 53 percent to 72 percent (and he’s making them at a higher clip, 67 percent to 56 percent).

“He’s active” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said of the 7-foot-1 Len. “He’s got a feel of where to be on the court, and his length has an effect on guys inside.”

In the last week, Len has put up 17 points and 11 rebounds in a loss to the Clippers and 19 points and seven rebounds in a win over the Celtics.

But Len is grateful just to be back on the court. That’s why an October win over the Spurs stands out to him. More than his 10 points and 11 rebounds, Len goes on about his career-high 32 minutes.

“I rarely played in college 30 minutes. Just playing against Tim Duncan,” Len said, “that felt great.”

Pacers’ Myles Turner says it’s “blatant disrespect” he didn’t make All-Defensive Team

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The NBA’s All-Defensive Teams were announced on Wednesday. When it came to the center position, Utah’s Rudy Gobert was named to the first team, and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid the second team.

That left Indiana’s Myles Turner, the league’s leader in total blocked shots last season, off the list. He took to Twitter to vent about that.

His teammates and GM had his back.

The NBA puts players, and by extension voters (selected members of the media), in a box by the use of rigid positions for this award. In an increasingly positionless league, voters for the All-Defensive Teams have to choose two guards, two forwards, and one center for each of the First and Second teams. It’s unlike All-Star voting, for example, where two backcourt and three frontcourt players are chosen, which allows some flexibility. In the attempt to make the All-Defensive Teams (and, also, All-NBA Teams) look like the kind of lineups teams would put on the floor 25 years ago, voters are limited.

Because of that format, Turner got squeezed out. (Note: In an effort at transparency, that includes on my ballot for these awards.)

Two centers only. Gobert is the defending — and soon likely two-time — Defensive Player of the Year, and is the anchor of a great Utah defense. Embiid’s impact on the defensive end is critical for Philadelphia, something evident in the Sixers second-round playoff series against Toronto when he was +90 in a series the Sixers lost (voting took place before the playoffs, but Philadelphia’s defense was 5.8 points per 100 possessions better with Embiid during the season, Indiana was 1.2 better with Turner).

There were three deserving centers — Turner was fantastic this season, he made a huge leap and anchored the NBA’s third-best defense — but two spots and no flexibility. So when the music stopped, Turner was the guy standing without a chair. It sucks, but that’s the way it went.

Turner will use this as motivation for next year. Keep playing like he did last year and his time will come.

Cavs owner Dan Gilbert on Kyrie Irving trade: “We killed it in that trade”

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The Cleveland Cavaliers had no choice but to trade Kyrie Irving back in 2017. Irving asked to be moved, and if he hadn’t been there were threats of knee surgery that would have sidelined him much or all of the next season (he didn’t get that surgery, but then missed the 2018 NBA playoffs due to those knee issues).

The trade they took was with Boston: Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, a 2018 1st round draft pick (which became Collin Sexton) and eventually a 2020 2nd round pick. At the time that didn’t seem bad because we didn’t yet grasp the severity of Thomas’s hip surgery — but the Celtics did. Once Cleveland’s doctors got a look at Thomas the trade was put on hold until more compensation was added, which proved to be the second-round pick.

Looking back now, the Cavaliers didn’t fare well, with all due respect to Sexton (who made the All-Rookie second team). Although that’s to be expected, nobody gets equal value back when trading a superstar.

That’s not how Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert sees it, speaking to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

“I don’t know, but I think Kyrie will leave Boston,” said Gilbert. “We could have ended up with nothing. Looking back after all the moves Koby made, we killed it in that trade.”

“Killed it?” I didn’t think the kind of stuff Gilbert must be on was legalized in Ohio yet.

This is a matter of semantics. Was it about as good a deal as GM Koby Altman was going to find at the time? Yes. Again, at the time we thought Thomas would return midway through the next season and be closer to the guy who was fifth in MVP voting the season before than the guy we ended up seeing (which is still a sad story, hopefully Thomas can get back to being a contributor next season somewhere). Crowder was in the rotation on a team that went back to the NBA Finals. Sexton showed some promise as a rookie, maybe not as much as some Cavaliers fans think but he can play.

But “killed it?” To quote the great Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Mike Budenholzer no fan of Drake’s free run on Toronto sideline

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Drake is the Mayor of Toronto.

Actually, he does fewer drugs than some former mayors of Toronto, and Drake was not elected, but he’s The Mayor in any meaningful way. The man can do whatever he wants.

Such as walk up and down the sidelines of a Raptors game with impunity, and give Nick Nurse a massage during the game.

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has much bigger things to worry about — such as were Eric Bledsoe misplaced his shot — but somehow during his conference call with the media on Wednesday, before a critical Game 5, Drake was the topic of discussion. Budenholzer is not a fan of Drake getting to patrol the sidelines. Via ESPN:

“I will say, again, I see [Drake talking to Raptors] in some timeouts, but I don’t know of any person that’s attending the game that isn’t a participant in the game a coach,  I’m sorry, a player or a coach, that has access to the court. I don’t know how much he’s on the court. It sounds like you guys are saying it’s more than I realize. There’s certainly no place for fans and, you know, whatever it is exactly that Drake is for the Toronto Raptors. You know, to be on the court, there’s boundaries and lines for a reason, and like I said, the league is usually pretty good at being on top of stuff like that.”

Drake responded on Instagram, first with a post that had a series of emojies, and then during an Instagram Live post where he liked a comment to his post where part of it was: “If you don’t want the opposing team to celebrate and dance, prevent them from scoring, winning, or achieving their objective.”

My guess is the league (and maybe the referees before Game 6 in Toronto) will reach out to Drake and tell him he can’t go Joe Biden on a coach during the game, and to stay near his seat. This is precisely the kind of distraction from the game that fans love to talk about and annoys the league office, which wants the focus on the court.

Personally, the more personality around the game, the better. It’s entertainment people, enjoy the show.

Knicks president Mills says Porzingis threatened to return to Europe if not traded in seven days

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If you thought the Knicks thrashing or Kristaps Porzingis on his way out the door was over, well, you haven’t been paying attention to the Knicks.

Team president Steve Mills was at a Knicks fan forum on Wednesday and was asked about the Kristaps Porzingis trade and dropped this bomb: Porzingis gave the Knicks the ultimatum of “trade me or I’m going back to Europe.”

“When he walked into our office, my office, and Scott [Perry, Knicks GM] was sitting there with me, and point blank said to us, ‘I don’t want to be here, I’m not going to re-sign with the Knicks, and I’ll give you seven days to try and trade me or I’m going back to Europe.'”

To be clear, Porzingis had to mean going back to Europe to work out and hang out, he could not have played professionally this season. European clubs honor commitments to NBA contracts — they will not sign and play a guy under an NBA contract — the same way the NBA does with European clubs (as well as China and all FIBA leagues).

Saying he wasn’t going to re-sign makes things clear for New York, it’s one of the reasons the NBA touted the “super-max” contract extensions because teams would find out earlier about player intentions. The Europe part, he could have signed there this summer, but the most a European team would pay him would still be more than $20 million less his likely next NBA contract (the top Europeans players make less than $3 million annually). But sure, go ahead and believe Porzingis would leave that money on the table.

For the Knicks brass, speaking in front of Knicks fans, this was the chance to make themselves look good — “see, we already had a good trade in place” — and thrash the guy they had been selling as the franchise savior a year before. It’s all about perception.

The Knicks have a lot of cap space this summer and their perception as a front office will hinge on what they do — or do not do — with it.

Porzingis landed in a good spot with Luka Doncic in Dallas, and the Mavericks will give Porzingis a max contract. Then it’s on him to earn it.