Rookie Alex Len has already made a big impression early on in his second season. Should he replace Miles Plumlee as the starting Suns' starting center?

Last year, Alex Len was the fifth overall pick for the Phoenix Suns in the 2013 NBA Draft.  The 7' 1" Ukrainian big man, by way of Maryland in college, was the first center taken in the draft, including the player who many viewed as being the top ranked prospect overall, Nerlens Noel.

The Suns saw Alex as the long term answer to their starting center position.  But with a rookie year in which he was mostly sidelined recovering from ankle surgeries, it was uncertain just how good he could be.

At the same time, the Suns also received a surprise contributor last season from a trade with the Indiana Pacers that brought Miles Plumlee to Phoenix...a second year player at the time who was essentially a rookie after registering only 55 minutes in his first season.

Plumlee started out hot last season and then began to fall back to Earth as the season wore on.  Meanwhile, Alex Len is now healthy and has been making a noticeable impact off the bench.  Even in less minutes, Len is averaging more points than Plumlee, while shooting a higher percentage. Although Miles has remained a solid contributor, his lack of offensive production has caused many to wonder... Is it time for Alex Len to step into the starting position?

So let's take a look at the numbers thus far, and see if they provide an answer to that question

Stats: Len Vs. Plumlee Per Game Comparison

Stats: Len Vs. Plumlee Per 36 Comparison

Stats: Len Vs. Plumlee Advanced Comparison

Looking at the stats, you can see that both Miles Plumlee and Alex Len are posting fairly similar numbers per game.  Of course, this changes when you look at the Per 36 numbers, and the advanced stats where Alex has a pretty clear advantage in nearly every category.

However, these numbers just compare their individual numbers, so they only tell part of the story.  The real question is, what kind of impact are they having on the team when they're on the court?

Fortunately, there are stats for that too...Here's a look at the numbers comparing both Miles and Alex with the rest of the starting line-up:

Basic

Len, Plumlee Lineup Comparision Traditional Stats

At first glance, this appears as if Miles has the advantage.  However, the basic stats can be a little unreliable when comparing averages with such a large minute disparity. According to this, it looks like the team performs much better with Plumlee in the line-up.  But the sample sizes are very lopsided, which causes the averages to look much different from reality.  In this case, the advanced stats will give us a more accurate representation.

Advanced

Len, Plumlee Lineup Comparision Advanced Stats

Now we see a completely different story. The numbers you really want to focus on here are the OffRtg (average points scored per 100 possessions) , DefRtg (average points allowed per 100 defensive possessions), and NetRtg (the difference between the offensive points scored and the defensive points allowed).

Looking at the numbers from each of these line-ups, it seems pretty clear that the starting line-up has been playing better overall with Alex Len among the other four starters than with Miles Plumlee.  In fact, the starting line-up with Plumlee in it has a negative net rating, meaning they are giving up more points on defense than they are scoring on offense.  With Len in the line-up, that changes to the Suns scoring 17.5 points on average more than they are allowing on defense, per 100 possessions each.

However, it's also worth noting that we are comparing 173 minutes of play with Plumlee in the starting line-up, to only 42 minutes with Len playing along side those same players.  It is certainly possible that those numbers could drop a bit with extended time.  Still this gives us a fairly good indication of the overall positive effect of Len...not only with his individual play, but how he is impacting the team as well.

So, Should Alex Len Be The Suns' Starting Center?

Well, it certainly appears that way based on the numbers.

But here's the thing...While it's easy to look at the numbers and see that Alex is outperforming Miles in nearly every category, there are still other factors to consider.

Suns coach Hornacek is undoubtedly still toying with the line-ups and wants to be cautious before making any changes.  Len is still basically a rookie, and he probably wants to see how he will respond to the increased minutes before throwing him into the starting line-up.

Hornacek actually gave a bit of insight into this the other day in an article from Paul Coro of the AZ Republic, where he indicated that he was looking to split the minutes evenly between Plumlee and Len, with each getting about five to six minutes at a time to keep them fresh and energized.

In my opinion, this is the first step to seeing how Len responds to increased playing time without changing the starting unit.  If Len can continue to impress while playing more minutes each game, I'm sure the change will eventually be made.

At the moment, the Suns seem to be doing just fine as is.  Allowing Miles to continue starting in the short term while Alex continues to adjust to playing big minutes, and gaining more and more confidence with every game, is working out pretty well for all parties involved.

Either way, it seems pretty clear that Alex Len will eventually take over as the Suns' starting big man this season.

It's only a matter of time.

Poll
Is It Time For Alex Len To Start For The Suns?

  902 votes | Results

The Jam played two scintillating games this week, losing to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in Triple OT on Tuesday, and beating Reno in regulation on Friday.

The Jam faced two tough opponents this week in the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the solo affiliate of the Houston Rockets and the Reno Bighorns, the solo affiliate of the Sacramento Kings.

The Jam were defeated by RGV in a triple overtime thriller, 151-148. The Jam were led by Elijah Millsap, who put up a triple double; Xavier Munford, who was 2 rebounds shy of a triple double; and Earl Barron, who had 30 points and 15 rebounds. RGV was led by assignee Nick Johnson, who scored 39 points, and former Sun Earl Clark, who had 35 points and 11 rebounds.

Against the Bighorns, the Jam managed to put one in the win column, pulling away late to finish up 154-143. And no, that wasn't in overtime. The Jam enjoyed strong performances from Mac Koshwal (28 points on 13-14 shooting), Munford (31 points) and Millsap (26 points), while the Bighorns were led by Ra'Shad James (25 points) and Brady Heslip (23 points).

Jam vs. Vipers

In the first game for the Jam that didn't feature Tyler Ennis and T.J. Warren, who left the team to rejoin the Suns, the team faced the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. The Vipers are known for their heavy reliance on the three point shot, and this game did not fail to meet that expectation. The Vipers threw up 43 three pointers, hitting 20 of them. The Jam struggled all night to contain the three point shooting, and it was what ended up killing them in the waning minutes.

The team struggled to find efficient scoring without Warren and Ennis. Despite the fact that he was able to put up a triple double, Millsap shot only 26% on 31 shots. Ball handling also became a difficulty, with 20 turnovers in the game.

A bright spot for the team was the emergence of Munford. In the first two games, Munford had been relatively quiet coming off of the bench behind Ennis. Thrust into the starting role again, Munford delivered well this game. One area of potential concern for the rookie is ball-handling. While 5 turnovers is not terrible considering the three overtimes, this is an area Munford will definitely need to improve on in the future.

The poor play from starters Jamil Wilson and Casey Prather was rather unexpected. RGV does not feature particularly strong wings (Johnson was the primary ball handler), and as such this should have been a game where both players could thrive. However, they both shot poorly, Wilson in particular, and Prather got into foul trouble that forced him to the bench for a time.

Overall, you cannot be too disappointed with a triple overtime loss to a team that features 2 NBA assignees.

Jam vs. Bighorns

In their second game of the week, the Jam took on the Reno Bighorns. The Bighorns recently hired a coach tied to Grinnell College, the Division III team well known for its frenetic offense and the exploits of its leading scorer, Jack Taylor. The Bighorns have been given free rein by the Kings front office to run the same kind of fast paced, zero-defense system. Through the teams first few games, 6'1 guard Brady Heslip has been the embodiment of this philosophy, and become something of a media darling, even being featured in a New York Times article.

The Bighorns ended up being the victims of Mac Koshwal's coming out party for the season. After 3 mostly ho-hum games, Koshwal came out firing this game, and hit 13 of his 14 shots for 28 points. Millsap managed to have a much more efficient game against Reno, hitting 7 of 17 shots and having only 5 turnovers.

The team at times struggled to keep up with the frantic pace, but were helped by strong performances from the bench players. Robert Vaden (15 points), Chris Wright (10 points) and Renaldo Major (12 points) combined to shoot almost 70% off the bench, including 60% from 3.

While the team was able to produce offensively, they were not terribly successful in containing the Bighorns' offense. Considering Coach Nate Bjorkgren is known as favoring a more active defensive style than the Suns' standard style, he couldn't have been all that happy with the overall defensive effort.

Next Up

Tuesday, November 25th at 7 pm - Bakersfield Jam vs. Santa Cruz Warriors - Live on Youtube

Friday, November 28th at 5 pm - Bakersfield Jam vs. Texas Legends - Live on Youtube

Saturday, November 30th at 5 pm - Bakersfield Jam vs. Texas Legends - Live on Youtube

In the first installment of this series, Goran Dragic was proclaimed player of the week and we saw his early season highlights. This week, Markieff Morris dominated the competition over the course of a 3-1 road trip.

This week, Alex Len put up career-high scoring performances in two consecutive games. Alex Len also shot 79% from the field over the course of five games.

And yet, Alex Len is not player of the week. Which is only a testament to the type of week that fourth-year power forward Markieff Morris had.

Admittedly, Kieff got off to a rocky start in Los Angeles. In the first game of the week against the Clippers he shot 2-10 from the field and put up only five points and six rebounds. But after that, he looked like the leader of the team.

Despite Len's fantastic performance against the Boston Celtics on the road, it was Markieff's career-high 30-point performance that led the Suns to a slim four-point victory. Two nights later, it was his game-saving block on Brandon Jennings that netted a two-point win over the Detroit Pistons.

And against the 76ers, his 18 points in only 22 minutes allowed the Suns to gain momentum in the first half that they wouldn't lose for the rest of the night. He put up another efficient stat line in Indiana, but that game will count for the upcoming week.

Overall, Markieff averaged 15.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.8 blocks per game this week. He struggled to score from long distance, but shot an astounding 55 percent from the field and a perfect 7-7 from the free-throw line.

What makes it even more impressive is the fact that he logged over 30 minutes in just one of the four games. Morris actually averaged 19.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per 36 minutes.

And that brings us to this week's video of early season highlights. Watch Markieff drill three-pointers, knock down mid-range jump shots and even go to work in the post. Watch him convert fast break layups as well as putback dunks.

This video is a testament to the versatile offensive weapon that Markieff has become. He is now by far the Suns' greatest offensive frontcourt player, and arguably their best option to score in a halfcourt set. He doesn't have the explosiveness of an Amar'e Stoudemire, or the three-point shot of a Channing Frye, but he falls somewhere in between. He is also now quite adept at finishing through contact.

Markieff Morris may not have the ceiling of a superstar, but he's quickly establishing himself as an above-average power forward. His PER of 18.8 currently ranks 12th in the league among starting power forwards, and of those 12 he also has the lowest usage rate.

Years ago, one of Morris' best-case scenario pro comparisons was Rasheed Wallace.

Wallace was an exceptional defender who had both the strength and the quickness to guard power forwards and centers on the low block. He was one of the better defenders of his era. And Markieff still has a lot of work to do in that area.

Offensively, however, there are many similarities. Rasheed's ability to hit the turnaround jumper, score in the post and float out to the three-point line can now be seen in Kieff.

When Rasheed was 25, he made his first All-Star game with Portland. That season, he averaged 16.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.4 blocks per 36 minutes. He shot 52 percent from the field, and at that time his three-point shot was still a work in progress.

Markieff is currently 25, breaking out at about the same time that Wallace did. And for comparison, he's currently averaging 17.9 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.8 steals and 0.8 blocks per 36 minutes. Markieff is also shooting a career-high 51 percent from the field.

While he isn't on his way to breaking the NBA record for most technical fouls, Markieff, just like Sheed, will do as he pleases and say what he wants. For evidence of that, look no further than his comments on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's missed shot at the end of the Suns-Pistons game a few days ago.

Do we have our very own baby Sheed?

Also, here's a poll for you to vote for your own player of the week. Disagree with my pick? Let your voice be heard!

Poll
Who is your Suns player of the week?

  305 votes | Results

As the actual games unfolded, the Phoenix Suns have looked - and felt - disappointed with some of the outcomes. But a 9-5 record after 14 games is really a solid start. Let's look at the rest of 2014.

Great expectations when bumped up against reality are generally met with disappointment.

Rarely does a team with high expectations still make every fan happy. And rarely does a team with high expectations make themselves happy.

Such was the case with the Phoenix Suns coming out of the gate this season. Realism aside, we hoped that the unusual lineup would mesh immediately, and that every player would pre-subjugate their egos for the good of team before finding out if those egos would fit without such sacrifice.

Suns dealt front-loaded road schedule

Will have to dig deep to stay in playoff race

Regardless of the meshing, the schedule itself was not an easy one even though the season started with a bunch of home games. When reviewing the schedule in August, I did not expect the Suns to dominate.

But despite the rocky start, the Phoenix Suns find themselves with a 9-5 record and a few more winnable games in the next 2 weeks before a tough roadie through Texas.

The first 10 - tougher than it looked

results-first-10

Coming out of the chute, we all wanted the Suns to take advantage of the home-heavy slate. But back in August I thought this schedule was a really tough one (minus the easy Laker games) and would have been happy with a 5-5 outcome.

A year ago, the Suns went 10-18 against their non-Laker season-opening opponents.

The Spurs, Jazz, Grizzlies, Kings, Warriors, Nets, Hornets and Clippers were tough on the Suns last season. I mean, you almost couldn't find a tougher group of opponents for this team. A year ago, the Suns went 10-18 against those opponents (and that includes the season-ending "Archie show" against the Kings).

Looking at it that way, a 5-5 record after 10 isn't so bad. I guess we should be satisfied they took care of the Lakers and found a way to go 3-5 against a group of teams that had the Suns number even when the chemistry was great a year ago.

The 6-game roadie

results-6-game-roadie

The Suns started the longest road trip of the season with a game against the Clippers, but then headed East with an opportunity to get a run going.

On paper, games against the lowly Celtics, Pistons, Sixers and Pacers should be a walk in the park. But road games are always tough because teams playing at home are playing with the crowd behind them. Luckily, the Suns were able to pull out wins against the Celtics and Pistons in the closing minute before laying the hammer on the Sixers and Pacers on consecutive nights.

The final game of the road trip is on Monday night, against the high-flying Raptors. The Raptors just came back to beat the "vaunted" Cavaliers on Saturday night to run their record to 11-2. They are built similar to the Suns, in that they rely mostly on guards for scoring while using their big men for the dirty work under the basket. They brought back the same team as a year ago, and are right now running roughshod over the league.

Winning that game would be a huge feat early in the season, right up there with beating San Antonio in week one and ahead of beating Golden State and Brooklyn. The Raptors are the real deal.

Even with a loss though, a 9-6 record after 15 games is solid. Not spectacular, but solid.

Coming up - what's your prediction?

The schedule through the end of the calendar year is actually pretty manageable.

Suns-sked-through-end-2014

The Suns have gone a collective 32-19 against these opponents in the past 1+ years (including this season's first 14 games). Their worst showings are against the Mavericks, Clippers and Kings, while they have swept the Nuggets, Magic, Pacers, Bucks and Pelicans under Hornacek.

I can see the Suns finishing the calendar year at 20-14 easily. With a good run of making their open shots, it's possible we will see an even better record than a year ago's start (21-13 through 34 games, including a 19-11 start before Bledsoe went down).

What's your prediction for the rest of 2014, now that you've seen this team in action?

The Suns demolished the shorthanded Pacers for their fourth straight win, 106-83, behind 23 points in 22 minutes from Gerald Green.

It's never easy to win the second end of a back to back on the road, even when the opponent is shorthanded, but the Suns did just that tonight in winning their fourth straight game behind a supernova performance from former Pacer Gerald Green. He scored 23, making 5 three-point shots in the process, performing like the best player on either team in his time on the floor.

He's become a bit of a bellwether for this Suns team, and Green made his presence felt in the first half with 18 points and 2 assists on 6-9 shooting (4-7 from 3) in only 9 minutes in the half.

The Pacers lost their leading scorer Roy Hibbert to injury midway through the first quarter, as Hibbert twisted and sprained his left ankle. Hibbert went back to the locker room with 6:40 to go in the first, came back for a bit but was clearly hobbled, then didn't return.

Phoenix just had too much for the Pacers tonight, and Green would not be denied. After an early 3-point barrage, the Pacers lacked the firepower to keep up once it became a shootout. Isaiah Thomas chipped in 16 points, and Markieff Morris 13 as the Suns routed the Pacers.

This wasn't much of a contest after a tightly contested first quarter featured the Pacers making 3s and crashing the offensive boards. Indiana made only 36% of their FGs, and 30% from 3, while the Suns converted at 45% and 39%. The game was played at the Suns pace, and more possessions favors Phoenix.

Dragic had a ho-hum night with 11, as Green and IT combined for 39, and the Suns bench provided the difference yet again. A 9-5 record feels good to me. Nothing like playing poor Eastern Conference opponents to get yourself right.

Player of the Game

Gerald Green

We all want to feel loved and appreciated. Nobody likes being rejected, and Green is no different. The Pacers gave up on Green, letting the Suns have him in the Scola trade. I can't get inside Green's head to know whether he feels extra motivation playing against Indy, but he sure played like it tonight.

He did so much more than score, with his 3 rebounds, 2 assists and countless hustle plays to go along with his prolific scoring. If there was a point he was proving, he proved it. The Suns were +24 when Green was on the floor tonight.

The next game will be much more difficult, Monday night vs. the 10-2 Toronto Raptors. For now, let's just enjoy this winning streak. When Green plays like a superstar, as he did tonight, the Suns will play with anyone in the league, and beat most.

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