Alex Len and Nerlens Noel had forgettable rookie seasons. Len was severely limited due to ankle injuries while a torn acl completely shut down Noel. Now both players look to make an impact heading into season two... and gain ground on other big men from their draft class.
At one time there was building momentum that Nerlens Noel would be the number one overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft.
A torn acl derailed that possibility. Even though Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress.com tweeted after the injury that Noel would still go 1-3... he didn't. Instead Noel plummeted to #6 overall, one spot behind Alex Len.
If you think plummet is too severe of a word, consider the gap between $10.9 million (for Anthony Bennett) and $6.5 million (for Noel) in the first two guaranteed years of their rookie contracts. Or that through the first four years that gap distends to nearly $10 million ($24 vs $14.4). Or that Nerlens might be lining up with Kevin Love and LeBron James in Cleveland instead of shackled in the quagmire that is the current state of Philadelphia basketball.
Alex Len has been haunted by his own series of unfortunate events. Alex's problems began with a surgical procedure to repair a partial stress fracture in his left ankle in May of 2013. He followed that up with another surgery in July, which was classified as a "precautionary measure" to correct the beginnings of a stress fracture in his right ankle.
These injuries were major hindrances on Len's basketball activities in his rookie season. It started with no Las Vegas Summer League. Then Alex was only able to register about 30 minutes of playing time in the Suns first 32 games of the 2013-14 season as he was still rounding into playing shape.
Len ended up appearing in 42 games during the season, averaging 8.6 minutes per contest. He had season highs of nine points and 10 rebounds (in separate games) while only playing more than 19 minutes in a game once on the season. Not exactly a banner year for a number five overall pick.
Still, Len played in 42 more games than Noel did last season. Noel's first official NBA action didn't come until Las Vegas Summer League in 2014. Once he got on the court, however, Nerlens drew rave reviews on his way to averaging 13.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in five total games between the Orlando and Las Vegas Summer Leagues. Noel led the Orlando Summer League in blocks per game. Some felt that Noel was the most impressive player during the summer sessions due to plaudits such as these reported on Pro Basketball Talk...
His length and leaping ability make him an intimidating force in the paint. The guys on the Sixers bench were counting the number of shots Noel altered and said it got into double digits before they lost track.
Len, meanwhile, had his first Summer League curtailed by a right pinkie fracture in the team's first game. It was especially disappointing since the Suns gargantuan center had a solid, if not spectacular, showing with six points, six rebounds and two blocks. He also looked noticeably stronger, while still moving more fluidly.
What is especially discomfiting is that Alex's pinkie injury has extended into preseason games, as he suffered a new fracture in a different area of the same bone. Compound that with Len's description of the injury reported by AZ Central's Paul Coro...
"As soon as I landed, I thought it was the same finger," Len said. "It was still sore from before because it wasn't healed all the way yet."
I'm not sure what's worse, that the finger was still hurt three months after the injury or that he was playing with it injured and unprotected during the offseason in the first place... Len's status will be updated as soon as today, October 15th, but if he's still dealing with an injury lingering from July does it make sense he will be cleared to play again?
Noel has been able to participate in preseason games. The highlight so far was a 12 point, 11 rebound, four steal showing against the New York Knicks on Tuesday 10/14. Sure, it's preseason, but it's better than a bad line or a DNP-injury.
Suns fans are expectantly waiting for the return of Len, who is seemingly being counted on to at least play meaningful minutes as the team's backup center. His massive size and length still project him to be an indomitable force in the paint on defense... if he can stay healthy. Last season he tantalized in short bursts, even displaying flashes of aggression that mark the true presence of a dominant rim protector.
While Len and Noel have failed to launch their NBA careers, others in their draft class have not had similar issues. Steven Adams has already made a name for himself after an impressive run in the 2014 playoffs. Adams recorded his first postseason double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds in a close out game six win over the Los Angeles Clippers in the Western Conference Semifinals.
That mean streak in Len Suns fans have seen glimpses of is pretty much how Adams comports himself on every single play. Being truculent and nettlesome are calling cards for the rugby player turned NBA center. Adams is also having an exceptional preseason as he is averaging 18.7 points per game through three games while converting on 24 of 28 field goal attempts (.857). If he can add the dimension of a passable offensive game to his bruising style of play Adams can be a very effective player in the league for a very long time.
After all, the 21 year old Adams is actually slightly younger than Alex Len.
Besides Adams there were several other big men that gave their teams reasons for optimism last season.
Kelly Olynyk (#13) 70 games played, nine starts, 1,400 minutes, 8.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.
Gorgui Dieng (#21) averaged 12.2 points and 12.0 rebounds per game in 15 starts to close out the 2013-14 season.
Mason Plumlee (#22) 70 games played, 22 starts, 1,275 minutes, 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds per game.
But none of these players seems to be dripping with potential like Len and Noel, two players that will likely be linked throughout their careers based on the propinquity of their draft position.
A potential coup for the Philadelphia 76ers, who drafted a ball hawking defensive dynamo after he slipped due to injury concerns.
A possible I told you so for the Phoenix Suns, who feel they got the best player in the draft. He still might be, too, considering what a rare breed well built 7'1" mobile two players are. Just think of how many are presently playing in the league... it shouldn't take you very long.
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
Len and Noel have yet to accomplish anything substantive in their brief NBA careers. As it stands now, wouldn't Adams offer more security in a backup role to Miles Plumlee than either of these two? Would Plumlee actually be the backup in that scenario on opening night?
One way or another, this season should be telling for the fifth and sixth picks from the 2013 NBA draft. Both still have the capability to be excellent players at this level. Unfortunately, they will need to overcome their respective obstacles of brittle bones and a flimsy frame that sabotaged their rookie seasons.
Because the biggest question facing these players entering the 2014-15 season is whether Glass Joe and Gumby can stay healthy.