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Maryland basketball: preparing for life without Alex Len

How Maryland might replace their departing center.


One of these years, Maryland basketball will have a settled, calm offseason without a lot of attrition or addition, and their team will relax and settle and grow as one. It's just not this year.

A week after Pe`Shon Howard announced his intentions to transfer, Alex Len followed him out the door, heading to the NBA - a move that's now official. Howard always seemed the greatest risk to transfer, and Len has been considered an NBA lean for months now, so in a sense neither move changes all that much for Mark Turgeon. But both departures, especially Len's, weakens his roster heading into a critical year.

Of course, they were both inconsistent pieces at best, and the improvement of Dez Wells, Nick Faust, and Seth Allen along with the introduction of Evan Smotrycz and Roddy Peters means next year's roster, even with no replacements for the outbound Howard and Len, might be preferable to last year's regardless. But it's inarguable that there's now a bit of a void at the 1 and the 5, as well as a general lack of depth with only nine scholarship players. As it is, those are two spots Mark Turgeon will probably have to gamble on filling on by-committee basis, with the committees made up generally of young and unproven options.

It may well be that that's enough. Shaquille Cleare is young and raw, and as Maryland went smaller and smaller at the end of the year his minutes got cut drastically - not so much an indictment of his play as much as just a necessity brought about by a smaller lineup and a shorter rotation. But it wasn't long ago he was a top-40 recruit with a high ceiling. The enduring image of his first year shows that potential: twice stonewalling Mason Plumlee, grabbing a defensive rebound, and hitting two buckets in a two-possession span during Maryland's win over Duke in the ACC Tourney, which might've been that game's turning point. Charles Mitchell is overmatched at center and probably won't be able to play at the same time as Evan Smotrycz unless Maryland wants to go small, but he's productive offensively and an energizer bunny able to make a difference against undersized teams. And Damonte Dodd is something of a wild card: little is expected of him, and frankly that's prudent, but he could provide a shot-blocking presence and a few minutes off the bench immediately.

It's not a glowing committee, granted, but then Len wasn't a glowing player. As underrated as I believe he was around these parts, he wasn't a critical cog, at least not offensively; 12 points and 8 boards is a very solid output, but not an irreplaceable output. In fact, Len never really fit what Mark Turgeon was trying to do. A soft 5, Len worked best in a team that could space the floor and had great guard play. (A reason he may make more sense in the NBA.) That team is definitely not Maryland. Turgeon built around slashing wings, and between that and the lack of a guard who knew how to get a post entry, Len's biggest strengths went unused. Cleare and the combination of Mitchell and Smotrycz, though they're really not traditional posts, aren't as talented as Len, but they're better fits for the system, and thus may more efficiently make up the difference - Cleare through his ability to carve out space in a way Len never could, Mitchell in his energy and ability to be at the right place at the right time, and Smotrycz in his own ability to stretch the floor.

What Maryland will most miss about Len is his defense - not necessarily his man-on-man D in the post, because Shaq is just as useful there (in a very different matter), but instead his ability to function as a safety net around the rim. He was 69th in the country in block percentage last year, and his ability to recover down low gave Maryland the freedom to pressure the ball (not to mention the times he got the better of Nerlens Noel and Mason Plumlee (twice)). Smotrycz, while sneakily athletic, will be used more on the perimeter; Cleare and Mitchell, who are in line to receive the lion's share of minutes as traditional posts, are below-the-rim players, Chuck more so than Shaq.

But depth is just as big a concern here, you'd think, and an even bigger concern than it is at guard. Smotrycz is nominally a 4, but a stretch 4 - in essence, a perimeter player. He'll play as a 5-lite against small teams and cupcakes, but for the most part he's not actually a post player, and in that sense isn't a plug-and-play for Len. Same goes for Mitchell, in a few ways; he's about 6-7 and lacks athleticism to make up for it. And Dodd is promising, but not ready. You can get away with only two or three guards, so long as there are no injuries, because guards tend to be able to play more minutes - they're in better shape and less exposed to fouls than bigs. But Cleare is the only true center on the roster you'd be comfortable with seeing major minutes, with the other options being acceptable but makeshift, and he struggled significantly with both foul trouble and stamina as a freshman. That's worrisome, because if Maryland stays as they are right now, they'll be asking him to play a lot of minutes, and if he can't the secondary options are somewhat unpalatable.

That said, this is college basketball - any team without a K and a U (or maybe an N and a C) in their initials is going to be forced to take risks in roster makeup. It's increasingly looking like Maryland will need to take a big one at point guard. But you don't want to take one if you don't need to, and Maryland doesn't need to here. While guards are in short supply, there's an abundance of bigs on the open market. Josh Davis, who averaged a double-double at Tulane, is a bit undersized at 6-8 but unquestionably productive. Tarik Black, once considered a future star at Memphis, saw his career fizzle out a bit and has some personality question marks, but is a legitimate 6-9 and bulky, and is an elite shot-blocker who could replace Len's defense at center. Both would be immediately eligible, and though Maryland hasn't been mentioned directly with either of them publicly, I'd be surprised if there was no interest - and there are even more names out there already, and more that will come up over the next few months, that Maryland will keep tabs on. Adding either of those two would be huge additions and likely immediate starters, but even if they end up elsewhere there are a lot of options here.

It's possible they stay put - even though I'm still of the opinion that it's time to win and that adding a fifth-year senior or JuCo transfer, or even another recruit when the coaching carousel stops spinning, isn't mortgaging the future, Turgeon may think there's enough here to keep on building. And there may be. But between Len's numbers and defensive presence, he wasn't a small factor. And unlike at guard, there are a lot of players Maryland can make a run at to help make up his loss.

But I'll echo a point made by Alex Prewitt earlier: whatever happens, even if Maryland adds another big, replacing Len is going to be a by-committee task. Len's production didn't match up with his lottery status, but there's simply no available like-for-like option available or on Maryland's roster - nor would one make much sense, given that Len's skillset occasionally went unused. Cleare is going to play a big role in replacing him, especially as the go-to low-post offensive option, while Mitchell will help make up the offense and any transfer will likely play into it as a puzzle piece as well. It's a lot to ask for Cleare to make that step up, but again, that's what happens in college basketball. Some assistance for him would be very welcome, but everyone's time comes eventually.