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 year – was 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.
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.”