Most national scouts and executives thought the 2013 NBA Draft would be the worst in a decade, and after a year of play it measured out as one of the worst in the history of the sport. But many good players are emerging from that dark cloud to have a bright future, including the Phoenix Suns' Alex Len.
Two years ago, the 2013 NBA Draft was billed as one of the worst in a decade. No certain All-Stars were available that year, and few were projected to even some day be All-Stars. And after they played their first year, the numbers proved that the 2013 Draft was one of the worst EVER.
The Phoenix Suns, owners of the #5 pick (their highest pick in 25 years), had picked a bad year to be bad.
All-Stars are usually found at the very top of the draft. The #5 pick has been hit and miss over the years. Players picked at #5 in recent years include Kevin Love (2008), Ricky Rubio (2009), DeMarcus Cousins (2010) and Jonas Valanciunas (2011). All quality starters, including a couple of All-Stars. But those hits were sandwiched by the likes of Raymond Felton (2005), Shelden Williams (2006), Jeff Green (2007), Thomas Robinson (2012) and Dante Exum (2014). We'll just call them the misses, though Exum has a very high ceiling.
Where does Alex Len fit among the #5 pick club? We still don't know.
The Suns needed an Alex Len type. They were starting over with a new GM (Ryan McDonough) and had finally decided to rebuild the team around their highest pick 25 years. Why not pick a center, who the Suns have failed to find despite all their success?
Neal ain't Walking through that door. And the Suns should refuse to open the door to guys like Jake Voskuhl, Luke Longley, Joe Kleine or Chris Dudley - all of whom started 30+ games in a season for a Suns team with playoff hopes.
Len was rated anywhere from the #1 to #6 pick in the draft in terms of skill and projection, but that was mainly because the draft offered a lot of unknowns and very little sure-fire talent. Len, Anthony Bennett and Nerlens Noel - all top-6 talents - had injury issues, while many other potentially exciting players were from overseas: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Lucas Nogueira, Dennis Schroder, Sergey Karasev, Rudy Gobert were all first-round talents but hadn't played a minute of basketball in the US. Even Len was only two years into US basketball at Maryland.
But the real problem was the lack of top end All-Star talent. The 2012 Draft boasted Anthony Davis as a sure-fire All Star and sprinkled in Damian Lillard (picked 6th) as the gem that outshined everyone but The Brow. Both have already made the All-Star team. The 2014 Draft boasted Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker.
The top 5 of the 2013 Draft resembled more of a normal year's mid to late lotto shish kabob.
Then is now
Two years later, the 2013 Draft still doesn't have any sure-fire All-Stars in its midst. But there are some quality NBA starters in the group, even some that have played a big role on winning teams already.
Let's take a look at those players who could some day win a major NBA award, or who could be good enough to be a Top-3 starter on a deep playoff team.
This short list is based on my subjective opinion of their likely ceiling as NBA players. Some have played better to date, and some will surprise us and play better in the future. But this is my ranking of the best players in the 2013 Draft and mine alone.
Potential Top-3 Players on deep playoff teams
Rudy Gobert (original pick: 27)
Gobert had the best measurable of all: 7'8.5" wingspan (good grief!). But the long, lean Gobert was an unknown from France, and had not had a great season. Then, he later revealed he was nursing an injury during pre-draft workouts which slowed him down and hurt his stock. He was taken late in the first round and languished on the Utah bench for a year and a half behind Enes Kanter, but then burst onto the scene over the past three months.
Now, The French Rejection has shown potential for Defensive Player of the Year nods, and even finished 5th this season in the voting. His ability to defend the rim is nearly unparalleled in the league. Some of that might be that he surprised teams, and that good scouting reports next year will work to expose his deficiencies. But Gobert is here to stay, and while he may never be an All-Star, he's justified Kris Habbas' belief in him.
Gobert's fatal flaw, at the moment, appears to be lack of offense. But if DeAndre Jordan can make a long career out of shooting no further than three feet from the rim, so can The Stifle Tower.
Nerlens Noel (original pick: 6)
Noel had a fine rookie season. Better than fine, even. While he had the luxury of playing for one of the worst NBA teams - which inflated his minutes and touches - he delivered in an incredibly versatile way. In 2014-15, among his draft peers he played the 4th most minutes, scored the 6th most points, pulled down the most rebounds (Gobert was a backup half the year), dished the 11th most assists and was a blocks and steals machine.
Noel could one day find himself among the league's best defenders, regularly in the conversation for the DPOY award.
Noel has two fatal flaws on his way to stardom. One is his offense, and that's a much bigger problem for him than it is for Gobert. Noel has a power forward's body and will spend much of his career with a bigger player on the court with him. So he needs a face-up game and the ability to shoot a jumper consistently. He's got nothing on that end at the moment.
Noel's other fatal flaw is his girth. Not only is he thin for center, he's thin for power forward too. He may not be able to stand up to opponents' big men, and can't stretch the floor enough to force them to go small. If you thought Amare Stoudemire was undersized in the pivot, STAT was Shaquille O'Neal next to this kid. Amare became lethal because he could make a jumper AND drive to the rim, forcing the other team to go small. Noel cannot do that.
Noel may never make an All-Star team because of his flaws, especially since the All-Star game is all about offense. If he makes the big team, or becomes the second or third best player on a deep playoff team, it will be because he's made himself into a longer Scottie Pippen or Nicolas Batum type who can do a lot of everything, at every position on the court.
Victor Oladipo (original pick: 2)
Oladipo can have great games, and already produces on a consistent level. But he's had the luxury of getting those big minutes on a really bad team, just like Noel.
Oladipo is clearly not a point guard, and he's not a great shooter (43% FG, 33% 3P) or scorer at shooting guard. But he might be one of the league's best defenders at his position, and he plays so hard that he could mold himself into one of the core of a deep playoff team. He's like the Eric Bledsoe of shooting guards - one of those guys that does so many things well, you don't want him sitting on the bench. Ever.
Vic's fatal flaw on the way to All-Stardom is shooting. He just isn't a great scorer or finisher, and on a better offensive team than Orlando he might not even break 10 points per game at the shooting guard spot. And that's tough to swallow for any coach. He won't be an All-Star, but his combination of effort and all-around skills could make him a really good starter on a really good team.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (original pick: 15)
The Greek Freak is the wing player version of Nerlens Noel. He's all arms and legs, and still growing. He might top 7 feet tall before he's done (he's already supposedly 6'11").
Giannis is another do-everything guard who doesn't do any one thing best in the league, but does it all really well. He will be a good scorer because of his length and athletic ability to spin, dribble and stretch to create shots near the rim, but he can't shoot worth a lick yet. Best of all, he uses his length to be a great defensive player already. He helped Milwaukee become the second-best defense in the league even without their star center this year.
The Freak's fatal flaw is jump-shooting, like many of his draft brethren, but if he can make make offenses honest by hitting threes he could be a better Nicolas Batum. He's got the personality and cache to eventually get voted to an All-Star team, but like the others in this class he probably won't because he's not a 20+ point scorer. Still, he can be a Pippen/Batum type for a good playoff team.
Alex Len (original pick: 5)
Yes, I'm a homer. Let's get that out of the way. I'm listing a guy with career averages of 4.7 points and 5.0 rebounds per game as one of the best of the Class of 2013 with a chance to be a big-time player on a deep playoff team.
But while Len has had a forgettable two years while he finds his health, he's got every measurable, skill and work ethic to be one of the best players on a deep playoff team. He has prototypical size (7'1" height, 7'3.5" wingspan, good athleticism), a nasty streak, and a work ethic that is consistently praised by the coaching staff.
Len's got the ability to be a plus defender and plus rebounder with a plus offensive game. His wing span - 7'3.5" a year ago, and I'd swear it's longer now - quick feet (even while dealing with ankle soreness) and rebounding acumen give him everything he needs to be a plus defender in the post and on the wing in pick-and-roll coverage. He might not win Defensive Player of the Year because he's not a spectacular blocker, but he could be considered one of the best in the game in a few years on that end.
Offensively, Len has a great touch around the rim, a solid ability to score through contact and good form on his jumper. The reason he's only scored 4.7 points per game in his career is that he's got poor timing on his pick-and-roll dives (he often waits too long to hit full speed after the pick) and his in-game jumper has devolved into a fallaway train wreck.
Randy Hill of FoxSports.com has this to say on what Alex Len has to do to get better.
Where Len can improve is through random challenges that heighten his awareness of how and when mid-range shots will be available. The kid has a very nice shooting touch, but converted only 29 percent of his attempts from between 10 and 16 feet because he rarely was prepared to shoot when the ball reached him. He made his task even more difficult by leaning back to avoid defenders who took advantage of his inability to prepare to catch and fire.
Instead of standing on the block and performing rep after rep, it would be beneficial to keep Alex moving into multiple sets of pick and pop, over to pick and roll on the opposite side to diving into a post-up opportunity ... all with shots challenged.
If Len can figure out when and where he's going to score, and get on the same page with his guards, he can become an offensive threat from anywhere. Even more dangerous to opponents, Len uses the same form to shoot three-pointers. If Len can keep the defense honest by being a viable threat from anywhere on the floor, the Suns will have a real gem on their hands.
Len's fatal flaws on the way to stardom are intertwined: he's been injury-prone, which has stunted his growth as a player. Right now, he's playing on effort and instinct which is why rebounding and shot blocking are currently his biggest strengths. If he can stay healthy and develop an intellectual knowledge for the game, Len could become one of the best centers in the NBA.
Here's early-season highlights by Sam Cooper.
Here's more, from the guy who made the earlier highlight reels.
This may be what I love the most about Alex, though.
Len vs. Noel vs. Gobert
These guys have not matched up often yet, so there's not a lot to go on.
This was the only game the Len started against one of these other two centers from my list of potential stars from that draft class. Len played only 16 minutes that game, but had 6 blocks and 5 rebounds while taking only 1 shot. Noel played 21 minutes, scoring 6 points, with 5 rebounds and 2 blocks.
The rest of the Class of 2013 are okay, but with lower ceilings
Another 15-20 players from the 2013 NBA Draft will likely have 10+ year NBA careers as starters and solid rotation players for many NBA teams.
But I just don't see Anthony Bennett, Otto Porter, Gorgui Dieng, Steven Adams, Mason Plumlee, Kelly Olynyk, Cody Zeller, Dennis Shroder, Ben McLemore, Trey Burke, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, C.J. McCollum or even the Suns own Archie Goodwin as a Top-3 player on a deep playoff squad.
There's lots of rotation players in this group though, even playoff-worthy rotation players. Adams was good for OKC last year in the playoffs. Plumlee plays a big role for the Nets, though he's lost time to Brook Lopez recently. McCollum had a break out 30 point game in the playoffs for Portland the other day, but hasn't previously established himself as a major rotation player, let alone a star. He's undersized for the two and has Lillard in front of him at the one. Porter is playing well for Washington in the playoffs, but hasn't been a regular rotation player until recently. Shroder has been lightning off the bench for the playoff Hawks and may yet supplant Jeff Teague in the starting lineup in future years, so he's one to watch.
The 2013 Draft was ultimately an okay one. If there had been 1-2 All-Stars on the board PLUS these guys, the draft would be seen in a different light.
Unfortunately, the 2013 Draft will always be the year Anthony Bennett went #1 and (potentially) not one All-Star emerged from the group.