NEW ORLEANS — When the New Orleans Pelicans choose a player with the sixth pick of the NBA draft Thursday, Maryland center Alex Len could be there, waiting.
That could make for an interesting decision for the Pelicans, because Len, 7-feet-1, 255 pounds, may be the best big man in the draft. He certainly has been one of its more intriguing prospects.
“He is solid in a lot of areas, and he has so much upside,” NBA director of scouting Ryan Blake said.
Consensus has had Len, who is from the Ukraine, as a top 5-10 pick all along. That has held steady. But of late, it has been reported that the Cleveland Cavaliers are considering making Len the first overall pick instead of Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel, whose knee injury has made for some uncertainty. However, Noel still seems to be the guy for the Cavs.
There appears to be a lot to like about Len. When he arrived for interviews with the Pelicans staff on June 14, his size was impressive, especially for someone who just turned 20.
Across the board, scouts say he is athletic; there are no reports of his being a “stiff.” He plays above the rim, has impressive speed getting up and down the court, rebounds, and is good defensively, particularly blocking shots.
“Len is developing his versatility in all aspects, has good size and mobility,” Blake said. “He could be one of the top guys picked because of it.
“Offensively, he wasn’t featured, but he’s shown he can score in the low post and make the short jump shot.”
Popular speculation among draft pundits has the Pelicans selecting Michigan point guard Trey Burker, college basketball’s Player of the Year last season. Some have New Orleans taking UNLV’s Anthony Bennett as a small forward, although he may be more of a power forward.
Asked if a good big man who is available in the draft, such as Len, could help the Pelicans, coach Monty Williams began by saying, “Our bigs are the strength of our team.” Then Williams, who has said he likes Len, added, “That doesn’t mean we won’t draft a big man.”
On a team that went 27-55 last season, Len’s presence could bolster the Pelicans up front. Last season, New Orleans brought in free-agent power forwards at different parts of the season: Dominic McGuire from Dec. 16 to Jan. 4, Henry Sims from March 3-13, and Lou Amundson from March 12 until the end of the season.
“But that was because of injuries,” Williams said.
A player such as Len certainly could help with regard to that. Rookie starting power forward Anthony Davis and backup center/power forward Jason Smith missed significant time injured, no doubt contributing to the amount of losses on a team that did not have a deep bench.
Assuming the Pelicans retain starting center Robin Lopez, with Len backing him up, Smith could be more of a backup to Davis, helping regulate his minutes while he grows and develops, which Williams did last season any way.
When Williams or Smith was hurt, Ryan Anderson, whose role is as a 3-point threat, often was thrust into a traditional hard-hat, under-the-boards battler as a power forward and did an admirable job.
However, the plan for Anderson next season is to take his game to the next level by being able to drive more, putting him in more of a small forward role.
So the presence of Len could help keep Anderson in that role more, and he could still play power forward when Williams opts to go small.
Len showed up for the interviews with the Pelicans wearing a walking boot after having surgery to repair a hairline fracture of his left ankle, which is not like a big man having foot problems, a big red flag.
There have been questions about Len offensively because he did not dominate in that way against smaller opponents in college. However, Maryland foes usually packed the lane around Len because the team lacked shooters and good guard play overall, Blake and others have said.
“He didn’t get a lot of touches, but he was productive,” Blake said. “He showed he could post up and repost, and he has good footwork. He can definitely play with his back to the basket offensively, and he can make the elbow jump shot (on the sides of the free-throw line).”
He certainly showed he can score against good competition. In an early season game against Noel, Len had 23 points and 12 rebounds. Against Duke and center Mason Plumlee, 6-11 and who will be chosen in the first round Thursday, Len had 19 points and nine rebounds.
Scouting reports say Len finishes strongly at the rim and that he will flourish on pick-and-rolls in the NBA. One can only imagine Len with point guard Greivis Vasquez in the pick-and-roll. He just needs work with his post game. Last season, Pelicans assistant coach Randy Ayers helped develop Lopez into more of an offensive threat.
The best-case scenario for the Pelicans would be to get a good small forward in the draft. Unless there’s a trade with, say, the Washington Wizards or another team selecting in the top three, that seems unlikely, unless Bennett falls to the Pelicans and they think he is the answer.
However, if projections are right, and Len falls to New Orleans, it might be too difficult to pass on him.