In a draft devoid of a clear franchise player, the task for the Cavaliers is finding the player with the most upside. That very well could be Maryland center Alex Len, who appears to be creeping up draft boards despite mediocre numbers last season with the Terrapins.
Len, for one, believes he could be the steal of the draft.
“I think I have the biggest upside of the big guys,” he said. “Ten years from now, I’ll be the best player out of this draft.”
The Cavs might believe that, too, which is why they’re considering him with the top overall pick. They have been linked to him since early in the college basketball season, when he destroyed Nerlens Noel in the Terrapins’ loss to Kentucky. Len had 23 points and 12 rebounds against Noel, previously presumed to be the best prospect in this draft. Noel, meanwhile, managed four points and nine rebounds in the victory.
“He kind of surprised us a little bit,” Noel said last month at the combine. “We didn’t really know much about him before then.”
Most everyone knows about Len now.
He never picked up a basketball until the age of 13, but his previous love of soccer and gymnastics developed the type of footwork rare in 7-footers. Len is a legitimate 7-1 and 255 pounds and can use his agility to run the floor with ease. He has been compared to both Jonas Valanciunas and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, although Len’s ability to step out and make jumpers makes the comparisons to Ilgauskas seem more valid.
“I watched [Ilgauskas] a lot growing up. He’s really famous overseas,” Len said. “I liked his style of play. With his size, he could step out and shoot, similar to my game. I would love to play like him.”
Ilgauskas, of course, is a member of the Cavs’ front office and has been heavily involved in the college scouting process. He could serve as a mentor to Len, although the youngster seems more adjusted to American culture than Ilgauskas was as a rookie.
Len’s freshman season at Maryland was sabotaged by a 10-game suspension due to eligibility issues stemming from his time in Ukraine. He was unable to practice with Maryland during the suspension and was still learning English, meaning he misunderstood coaches and teammates all the time and often botched play calls.
He spent that first year in the U.S. learning the language and now speaks it fluently.
Scouts believe Ilgauskas was a better player at this age than Len, who needs to get physically stronger to survive in the post. But basketball was never very popular in Ukraine. He might have never played the game if a basketball coach hadn’t walked by the window while Len was twirling around on a set of parallel bars in a gymnastics studio. He was the tallest and youngest kid in class, but he enjoyed the jumping and tumbling.
“I was doing it for fun,” Len said. “I was tall and lanky. To be a gymnast, you have to be small and strong. They told me right away, ‘You’re not going to be very good at this,’ but I think it helped my agility and flexibility.”
Len averaged 11.9 points and 7.8 rebounds on a mediocre Terrapins team that failed to make the NCAA Tournament. At least one NBA scout agreed with the notion the Terrapins — and particularly Len — suffered from terrible guard play that consistently failed to get him the ball in the post. That makes it difficult to fully evaluate his offensive skills and post game, although Len showed enough in pick-and-roll situations and around the basket to make teams believe he could develop into a tremendous offensive player.
Len had surgery last month to repair a stress fracture in his left foot, although he is hopeful he’ll be ready for the start of training camp. The initial prognosis was a 4-to-6 month recovery, but Len said at the combine he hoped to ditch the crutches and walking boot in time for the draft so he could walk across the stage when his name is called.
He is hopeful he can resume on-court activities in August. That would certainly put him on pace to be 100 percent healthy when training camp opens in October. He met with the Cavs in Chicago last month at the pre-draft workouts and will be in town this week to talk to them again — although he’ll be unable to work out because of the foot.
Len said he played with the injury for two months because he thought it was a bone spur, but an MRI after the season revealed the stress fracture.
“I was trying to be proactive,” he said. “I really didn’t have to do the surgery, but the doctors told me it was going to help me in the long run.
“I’m just trying to do the right things and be smart about it. I don’t want to hurt it. When doctors tell me I’m ready to play, I’ll play … I think I showed what I can be in the future.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.