The Suns' front court has gotten a bit bigger since we last saw them. What does this mean for Alex Len's development, and how could it impact the Suns' chances this season and going forward?
Although the Phoenix Suns are commonly thought of as one of the pioneers of small-ball in the NBA, the Suns also recognize the importance of having big bodies down low to man the post on defense, and provide both scoring and second-chance points of offense.
In 2013, Phoenix attempted to address this need by taking Alex Len with the 5th pick in the NBA draft who they saw as a project, but who had the potential to eventually become one of the better pure centers in the league. At the time, Len was a 19 year old, 7'1" prospect with a great frame, outstanding agility for a big man, and a very high ceiling.
Fast forward two seasons later, and the Suns still have yet to see their gamble on Len pay off. His development so far has been stunted by ankle issues (which Phoenix was prepared for), and injuries to his pinkie (which they were not).
Because of this, Len had an up and down year last season, which was also his first as a starter. Although Len has yet to prove that he can remain healthy all season and eventually become the quality player that Phoenix envisioned when they originally drafted him, at only 22 years old, there is still a lot of optimism that he will become the franchise big-man of the future.
But the Suns aren't sitting by idly and merely hoping this is the case. This off-season, they hedged their bet for this year while at the same time ensuring that their original gamble has the best chance possible of eventually paying off.
Enter Tyson Chandler.
Chandler, a 7' 1", 240 lb, 32 year old veteran, is not only one of the best all-around centers in the league, he is also lauded for his leadership, work ethic, and understanding of the game. And now, Phoenix is counting on him to bring his veteran leadership to help stabilize the locker room, and his mentoring to their young big-man prodigy.
"I think he has a promising future", Chandler said about Len. "He's a young player and he doesn't understand how big he is, and how much of a factor he can be on the court. It's my job to help him along". He continued, "I don't think he knows how good he is. I think when he starts to understand that, and starts to get that confidence, he'll start to grow and explode".
As one of the best big men in the league, Chandler certainly recognizes what it takes to be successful, and some of the attributes and talents that already Len possesses.
"He's long, agile, and he can shoot the hook with both hands." He continued, ""He has all the tools that you want to see in a big man in this league".
Unlike Len, Chandler wasn't afforded the opportunity to be taken under the wing of one of the league's best big men. But Tyson is embracing the opportunity to provide that for Alex.
"I didn't get an opportunity to play with a big man (as a young player). "I had to learn things on my own, so I didn't figure things out until my fifth or sixth year". "(Len) has the opportunity to take things from me, and hopefully accelerate his process".
Tyson seems to fully grasp the concept of needing to not only provide the Suns with another quality center, but also how important it is for him to help mold Len into being the future of this franchise. But it takes two to tango, and Alex seems more than willing to take instruction from Tyson.
"I can definitely learn a lot from (Tyson)". He continued, "He's been in the league 13 years, and has a lot of experience. "He's definitely someone I'vve been learning a lot from day-by-day, especially on the defensive end, he's one of the best bigs to probably ever play the game, so I'm excited to just have the opportunity to learn from him."
Alex now has a player on the same roster that equals his size and can bang with him in practice and make him better. This is something Len just hasn't had in Phoenix up to this point. Miles Plumlee could match his athleticism, but he didn't have the size, technique, or skill that Chandler brings to the table.
"It's a big difference going against (Chandler) everyday, I feel like I'm getting better...I think it's great".
However, It's difficult to quantify how much of an effect having a consummate professional and role model like Chandler around can have on a young player like Len. Tyson's influence transcends just post moves and techniques and also trickles down to the small details as well.
"I've learned a lot of little things. Starting in the locker room and how he talks to the guys and on the court with a lot of defensive stuff...It definitely helps".
The Suns are betting that with Tyson Chandler's guidance, Alex Len will learn what it takes to develop into one of the premier big men in the league, which he certainly has all of the tools to become.
Not only that, the addition of Chandler also takes a great deal of pressure off of Len's shoulders. Alex can now feel free to continue learning and developing alongside of Tyson, instead of having to carry the load as the starting big man in Phoenix's front-court.
As for the Suns, they now have a tag-team duo of 7' 1" centers to man the floor at all times. This means that the Suns won't have to suffer a drop off in production when Chandler goes to the bench, and Len gets to match up mostly with reserves.
Chandler should also be able to make up for Markieff's rebounding deficiencies in the starting line-up, and Tyson's defense in the paint should make a noticeable difference for the Suns as well.
When you combine Tyson's impact with Alex learning better techniques and positioning from him, along with Len's continuous growth in his strength and conditioning, the center position could be one of the team's greatest strengths this year, assuming they can avoid any injuries or setbacks.
The Suns investment in Tyson Chandler over the next four years could certainly pay off in the present, as well as the future.