Over the next several weeks, we'll be reviewing the season that was for Maryland basketball. Included in this review is, of course, player recaps, looking back at what they did and ahead at what the future holds. Today, we continue with the 2011-2012 freshman class and discuss redshirt freshman center Alex Len.
2011 - Alex Len
How we got here: The Alex Len story was certainly one of the most compelling and interesting subplots of the 2011-2012 basketball season. After Jordan Williams announced his decision to turn pro in May of 2011, Maryland fans were left wondering who would fill the front court void left by the sophomore center who averaged a double-double with 16.9 ppg and 11.8 rpg in his last season in College Park. Then, the next day, Terps fans learned that coaching legend Gary Williams had made the decision to retire. That sent the Maryland fan base into a whirlwind of emotion as people tried to process what Maryland basketball would look like without Gary Williams and who was going to replace him. It also meant that Maryland’s 2012 signees, Sterling Gibbs, Martin Breunig, and Nick Faust, all asked for a release from their LOI to play for Maryland. As Ben B. mentions in our season review of Nick Faust, once Mark Turgeon was hired to replace Gary, his first job was getting Nick Faust to recommit to Maryland, which he was thankfully able to accomplish. Unfortunately, Sterling Gibbs and Martin Breunig decided to play college basketball elsewhere as Gibbs went on to sign with Texas and Breunig with Washington. Later in the summer of 2011, Haukur "Hawk" Pallson decided to leave Maryland and head back to Europe to pursue his pro career. Maryland’s already depleted roster had taken yet another hit.
Later that summer, Terps fans began to hear rumblings about a Ukrainian player who might soon be signing with Maryland. We were told he was an "under the radar" type player who had a great all-around Euro-style game, as well as size. Then, in late August, Maryland announced the signing of Olexiy Len, a 7’+ center from Antratsit, Ukraine.
The opinions on Len’s abilities varied from potential NBA lottery pick in 2013, to a player with size but needing a lot of development before he could have a meaningful impact. But most seemed to agree that Alex had the potential to be a very good player and everyone was curious to see how he’d respond to playing college basketball in the United States. But before that could happen, Len would have to make it through the NCAA Clearing House, something that was easier said than done.
When Len initially signed, some speculated that due to his involvement with a pro team in Europe, he might lose a year of eligibility after enrolling at Maryland. While the NCAA reviewed his case, he was allowed to practice with the team for 45 days. That 45th day happened to be Midnight Madness, which allowed us to get a first peak at Len wearing a Maryland uniform. But at the stroke of midnight, Len’s practice time with the team was over until the NCAA issued a ruling about his eligibility. As the wait to hear back from the NCAA dragged on and on, Len found himself in NCAA purgatory, unable to practice with his team and losing valuable time adjusting to the language and other basketball barriers he was facing, not knowing if he’d ever be cleared to play. Some began to wonder if Len’s time in College Park was over before it could really begin. Finally, on November 2nd, the NCAA reached a decision on the status of Alex Len. Due to a violation of amateur rules that Len violated because he initially signed with a pro team, the NCAA required him to sit out the first 10 games of the 2011-2012 season and also declared that he would enter Maryland as a redshirt freshman, meaning he could only play four seasons at Maryland and never be redshirted. While the ruling was tough, because it prevented Len from being able to play in early season games that would allow him to get acclimated to the American version of basketball, it wasn’t the worst possible outcome.
Len finally made his much anticipated debut on December 28th against Albany. He finished the game with 14 points, 8 rebounds, and three blocks. But he also turned the ball over five times. It really was a great synopsis of how Len would perform throughout the season; he’d show great potential and flashes of greatness, but then pull the ball down to his waist and have a six-foot guard steal it away from him. It was obvious that Len certainly improved Maryland as a whole, but you also saw that Len still had a lot of work left to do before he could be consistently contribute, especially on the offensive end.
Over the course of the next three games, Len continued to play at a high level, making many wonder if he could step in and immediately be a dominant force in the front court. Over his first four games, Len averaged 13.5 points, 8.75 rebounds, and 2.25 blocks per game. He also shot 76% from the field during that stretch. Was it against lesser competition? Maybe for some of the games, but those four games included NC State and Cornell.
Over the next several games, Len began to struggle. Turgeon started limiting his minutes more until Maryland played Temple on the road in January. It was during that game that Len injured his ankle and played just seven minutes of the game. The injury didn’t keep Len out of the lineup, but it certainly had an impact on him and on Maryland’s team as a whole, who was already working with a limited bench. Len seemed to fall into a mid-season funk. He did have a great game against UNC at home, where is scored 12 points and pulled down nine rebounds. But for the most part, he wasn’t as effective as he had been earlier in the season. Was his ankle still bothering him? Was he still having trouble adjusting to life in the U.S.? Were these just freshman growing pains? No one is certain. But Len will likely seem like a different player heading into the 2012-2013 season.
Len was always a victim of not having a true, experienced point guard to get him the ball. A lot of the plays that Maryland ran this season had Len setting up high screens to get Stoglin open for shot opportunities. Len needs to work on using those screens to roll to the basket, where he can take advantage of his height and convert some easy baskets. He also needs to improve on his rebounding and boxing others out from flying in and stealing rebounds away. Len should be able to exploit second chance opportunities with his height and that's something he didn't do too often this season. Often times when he did get those chances, he struggled to convert them into points.
The Road Ahead: Len definitely showed flashes of potential that has so many drooling at what he could one day become. This season must have been a strange one for him, between moving thousands of miles from home, to learning a new language and dealing with not knowing whether you’d be cleared to play basketball. Oh, and he had to go to class, too. Next season will hopefully be a big stepping stone for Alex. There are some simple things he can do to improve his game right away (like holding the ball above his head, where guards can’t easily reach in and steal it from him. If he can continue to develop some of his post moves and regain his confidence with his jump shot, I can realistically see Len averaging around nine or ten points per game next season to go along with seven or eight rebounds. Remember, you can never teach size. Len has it and you can bet Turgeon will work with him to help ensure that he’s able to use it next season. Will Len be a lottery pick in the 2013 draft, as some predict he will? I don’t know if I’d go that far. But anything is possible. For now, I’d just expect Len to be a great complement to Shaq next season and hopefully open up more lanes for Faust and Stoglin once they are able to establish their scoring presence inside. I think he could garner some 2nd team All-ACC consideration, with a possible inclusion on the all-defense team. Maybe by his junior year he can be a 2nd team, borderline first team All-ACC caliber player.