The typical buzzwords of a draft -- potential, upside, skilled -- apply doubly when the tantalizing prospect is a big man. The overall low-ceiling nature of this draft makes dreaming on a 7-footer like Alex Len even easier.
It's possible Len will someday be the best player in the 2013 draft. It's also possible that the team that drafts him high in the lottery will end up as a bagholder, putting in the investment to develop Len into an effective pro only to see him never reach that level, or, worse yet, reach that level for a different team down the road. That's the risk when you marry tantalizing skill with a long expected learning curve. Mix in an immediate health concern -- Len had surgery last month to repair a stress fracture in his foot and will need four to six months to recover -- and the risk/reward profile gets even more complex.
At a base level, the 19-year-old Ukrainian is a compelling package. He has legit NBA height and a frame that looks like it can accommodate a good amount of additional weight as he gets stronger. He shows good agility, nice footwork, can handle the ball and has a solid-looking face-up stroke. Per Synergy Sports Technology, Len was fairly productive on either block. Speaking with several college and NBA people I trust, the general consensus is that they really like Len's prospects as a pro.
Here's a sampling of his production in the ACC:
So where is the concern? Len started off the season with a bang, putting up 23 points and 12 rebounds with four blocks on Kentucky in the season opener, easily outplaying the debuting Nerlens Noel, who has a strong chance to be the No. 1 overall pick later this month. That 23-point outing turned out to be his season-high.
That's not to say that Len didn't impact other games. He had some productive outings this season against better competition, hitting Duke with a 19 and 9 in a two-point upset win, putting 20 and 7 on North Carolina in the ACC tournament and posting a strong 15 and 13 in the NIT semis against Alabama. But he certainly wasn't consistently productive, and the Terrapins, despite having a lottery-bound 7-footer on the roster, weren't consistently good at any point in the season.
A weak nonconference schedule provided a gaudy record and expectations that Maryland would continue to grow as the season progressed, and it didn't really happen. Len averaged 11.9 points and 7.8 rebounds for the season and didn't consistently impact a league that wasn't exactly dripping with great bigs last season. The Terps' spotty point guard play was a significant factor in their overall performance, and unquestionably hurt Len's consistency, as well.
While having a skilled 7-footer in college should be an immediate ticket to success, it doesn't always work out that way. We only have to go back to last year's draft to find two lottery big men from mediocre teams.
Andre Drummond spent his one season in Storrs frustrating a fanbase with his inconsistent play and effort, and ended up going ninth to the Pistons in a classic draft situation where the potential reward was finally worth the risk. He now looks like an absolute steal at that spot, coming off a rookie season in which he averaged 7.9 points and, more impressively, 7.6 rebounds in just 20.7 minutes a game. Illinois' Meyers Leonard, a more direct comparable to Len in terms of size, physicality and college experience, went two picks later to Portland. He, too, had a credible debut season (11.3 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per 36 minutes) and looks promising going forward for the Trail Blazers. So, especially in a draft like this one, someone's going to take a reasonable gamble on a prospect like Len, development curve and all, ankle injury and all. The new NBA collective bargaining agreement helps teams retain their own prospects a bit longer, so that helps a general manager roll the dice on a pick like this. Len certainly has the look of a capable NBA player. If you're drafting him, though, you have to hope he starts to show that while you still have him.