From his formal entrance to Maryland’s basketball program to his announcement Monday he would enter the NBA Draft, Alex Len spent 595 days with the Terrapins.
The arrival --- a lanky Ukrainian opting to play college basketball in the United States, and dealing with the NCAA’s byzantine eligibility clearinghouse --- was always going to be a more surprising development than the departure.
And so Len’s press conference Tuesday in College Park felt far less like an event or a celebration than an inevitable occurrence, an exit just about no one believed would loom for four years.
“I think I’m ready to compete at the next level,” Len said. “All I can do is work hard. I know it’s going to be different. The first three years are going to be a lot of work, but I think I’m ready to compete and contribute to the team.”
The 19-year-old offered plenty of pragmatism in that comment. NBA first-round picks receive three-year guaranteed contracts. He averaged 11.9 points and 7.8 rebounds as a sophomore at Maryland, a significant leap from his truncated debut season but hardly into the territory of dominant interior scorer.
But he’s 7-foot-1. And can run the floor. And block shots. And, as was seen from time to time at Maryland, step out and hit a mid-range jumper (and even a 3-pointer in the ACC tournament against Wake Forest, too).
That’s more than enough for the NBA’s cult of potential, and more power to Len for taking advantage of it. He’ll have three years to develop, to grow stronger and smarter, to learn the pro game without the expectations of being a dominant player that existed at Maryland, and he’ll get paid to do it, too. Not a bad deal.
And when his rookie contract is up at age 22 or 23? He’ll still be 7-foot-1 and, assuming he stays healthy, will still possess remarkable athleticism for a man his size.
“I think the NBA game will suit him better than the college game suited him,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said.
Eventually if not immediately, that will probably be the case. No NBA team is trotting out a 6-foot-6 center as part of a Princeton offense, that’s for certain. In the long run, Len won’t encounter opponents who go so small his defensive deficiencies make it impossible for him to remain on the floor.
Of course, he’s also find 7-footers are more plentiful on a per capita basis in the pros than in the college ranks. This isn’t going to be easy.
“I’m excited,” Len said. “It’s going to be a huge step. It’s a different game. I think I’m ready for that.”
There is temptation for anyone who watched Len play 60 games for Maryland over the last two seasons to chortle at that prospect. He leaves the Terrapins with all of two 20-point outings, nine 10-rebound performances and seven double-doubles in two years.
But that misses the point entirely.
Len didn’t take this route accident. He grew up yearning to play in the NBA. Last month, when the opportunity to play in Madison Square Garden was broached, he detailed classic games he’d watched of Michael Jordan carving up the New York Knicks in the World’s Most Famous Arena.
This is what he wanted, and the prospect of not being perpetually double- or triple-teamed certainly didn’t hurt.
“Exactly,” Len smiled.
But Maryland wins here in time, too, even if it loses a coveted pro prospect. Only one Terp was selected in the first round of the NBA Draft in the last 10 years (Greivis Vasquez in 2010). No one since Chris Wilcox in 2002 has gone in the lottery.
This could be a boon for Turgeon, an advertisement for how Maryland can help foster big dreams. The fourth or fifth or sixth first-rounder he churns out with the Terps probably won’t carry quite the same impact as the first as he re-establishes the program.
“Hopefully, I’m going to be here for a long time,” Turgeon said. “I’m going to have an NBA wall. He’s going to be the first one. Hopefully, this becomes an annual event for us where we have someone going in the first round of the NBA Draft.”
Turgeon aimed high on this day, optimistic that top-10 projections could cascade into something bigger and better for the first Terp he’ll export to the NBA.
“I think he can be No. 1,” Turgeon said. “I think he can be the No. 1 pick in the draft. That’s what I think about him. They’re talking about the other guy [Nerlens Noel] being No. 1 overall and you guys saw the same game I saw when we played him early in the year. This kid’s going to be special.”
To what degree remains unknown. It didn’t take long for Len’s stint to arrive at its predictable conclusion, but both parties possess the potential to benefit from it for some time to come --- just not in the way Maryland fans dreamed of 595 days earlier.
--- Patrick Stevens