NBA Draft Preview: Why Alex Len is the Right Pick for the Cavaliers…Probably

In his three years running the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chris Grant has consistently bucked conventional wisdom and made the moves on draft night that he truly believed in, not the ones that smart guys thought he should make. For his boldness, there will always be critics who decry the moves that he makes.

Two years ago the selection of Kyrie Irving No. 1 overall was met with general praise. However, Grant shocked everyone when he took Tristan Thompson at No. 4, choosing to bet on the surest thing he felt was left in the draft. Grant knew that above all else, Thompson wouldn’t bust and that he would work his butt off to improve. Through two years of the Tristan Thompson experience, it appears to most people that that was a very savvy selection and the growth of Tristan has been quite something to behold.

One year ago Grant made another splash when he took Dion Waiters, a guy they had not even talked to or worked out, with the No. 4 pick. Many thought that Harrison Barnes would and should be the pick instead and have since continued to crush the pick. For me, I love it. I was a skeptic from the beginning but I’ve come to understand how Grant arrived at the choice and having watched Waiters play one full season (in which he was named a first-team All-Rookie) I’m excited about his potential to be a very good player in the NBA.

With the No. 1 pick again this year, it appears that Grant is ready to shock everyone again and pass on Nerlens Noel for the generally unheralded center from Maryland, Alex Len. Jason Lloyd from the Akron Beakon Journal has been driving the conversation about Len being a top target for the Cavs for the past month and just yesterday multiple national guys also began to get wind that the Ukrainian big man might be the No. 1 pick:

When David Stern comes to the podium and announces the Cavs selection tonight nothing really would surprise me much, but at this point most signs point to Len being the pick. And for the first time in his last three big selections, I understand upfront why he’d take Len.

The NBA Draft is all about projections. Teams cannot afford to simply take the player that is most ready to contribute from day one. Instead, they must serve as weather forecasters and look to the future and attempt to identify which players will be a raging storm and which will dissipate and ultimately amount to nothing more than a few drops in a bucket. While I’m sure there is a science to what each of these men do, with both the weather man and the GM, the process is far from fool-proof. Chris Grant’s job on Thursday night will be to project whether it’s Noel or Len who will ultimately be the better professional player.

The case for Noel is built mostly on the hope and belief that the elements that are not present in his game currently (jump shot, post moves, poise in the paint, thicker build, etc.) will develop over time. Right now Noel’s offensive game is nothing to speak of short of just dunking the ball. If he is unable to develop a low-post or face-up game then his ultimate NBA future will be consigned to a guy like the Bucks’ Larry Sanders—a skinny, yet very good defensive player and shot-blocking presence but not a threat on offense and therefore, not an All-Star player.

The fans of Noel, for reasons that remain unclear to me, are convinced that Noel will develop into a very good offensive player and has the potential to be an elite player. Their point is generally that when Noel bulks up and when he develops his jump shot and when he acquires a low-post game and when he learns how to handle double-teams that he’ll be a great player overall because he’s already a great defensive player. They treat these improvements as if they’re a foregone conclusion, not one that’s up for any debate. Noel will get much better offensively because he has the mystical secret ingredient “potential” that will get him there.

The Noel backers summarily decry Len’s game and pick it apart. He isn’t strong in the post. He doesn’t demand the ball. If he was so good why aren’t his numbers better? They attribute all the flaws of Len’s game to his lack of ability and ceiling with the brazen conclusion that Len can’t improve his game like Noel can because evidently he doesn’t possess this mystical magic “potential” to get him there.

What has remained a mystery to me is how anyone can judge one player’s potential against another’s. I can understand that if Len was a plodding stiff who looked awkward and lacked athleticism that you could make the case that he has a low ceiling. Lack of elite athleticism for his position is what will likely keep Otto Porter from being a great NBA player. But Alex Len is every bit the athlete and then some that you’d want in an NBA center. He has size, length, quick feet, soft touch, explosion, and good timing on shot-blocks. If you were molding a 20-year-old center prospect out of clay he would look a whole heck of a lot like Alex Len.

Those who want to criticize Len for not being strong in the post somehow seem to forget that Noel was even weaker there. When bodied up against thinker post players, Noel was unable to hold his ground and was over-powered often. Oh wait, I forgot—Noel possesses the mystical juice “potential” so that won’t be a problem for him the pros.

It is true that given his talent, it’s surprising to look at Len’s stat line and see that he only averaged 11.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. If he’s so good why didn’t he put up better stats? Why didn’t his team make it to the NCAA Tournament? What these arguments overlook is that basketball is a team game and if the five guys on the court aren’t working together everyone suffers. It’s been thoroughly discussed over the past month how bad Len’s teammates were at Maryland. Their guards especially were selfish and turnover prone. The better question to ask isn’t about his point totals but about his shots. Why was a 7’1” athletic center only getting 8.5 shots a game?

None of this matters though because if Len was so good he would overcome his teammate’s shortcomings the way Noel did. Like how Noel propelled his team to the NCAA Tournament while amassing gaudy statistics that make Len look like a little fairy boy. In reality, Kentucky didn’t make the tournament either and lost in the first round of the NIT. And before the Noel fans jump up and defend their man because “if he hadn’t gotten hurt they would have made the tournament” let me point out that at 17-6 before the Florida game, with losses to Alabama, Texas A&M and Baylor (all non-tournament teams), it wasn’t like they were lighting the world on fire or anything. (For the record, on February 12, the date Noel got hurt against Florida, Maryland was 17-7.)

And about those “stats”…let’s look at Noel and Len’s per 40-minute numbers:

Len—18.0 points, 11.9 rebounds, 3.0 blocks
Noel—13.1 points, 11.9 rebounds, 5.5 blocks

Noel has the edge on blocks while Len has the edge in points. Why again is it a big deal that Len didn’t have the stats? If Len’s “poor” numbers are some sort of indication that he’s not going to be a good pro then why aren’t Noel’s similar numbers an indication of the same thing? Why does the argument only go one way? Why can Noel get so much better but Len can’t?

Silly me, I forgot again about the mystical nectar of “potential” and its powers to turn even the most pathetic offensive player into Kevin Garnett.

Here’s the point I’m trying to get and I’ve gone over the top on purpose: When you get to the level of these players where they’re on the brink of being professional athletes, they all have potential. It’s not some mystical essence that God only deigns to bless certain players with and not others. While it’s true that not everyone is as athletic and physically gifted as others it also doesn’t mean that everyone can’t work hard to improve their game. If Noel had made the same improvements in his game that Len made from his freshmen year to sophomore his fans would point that out as a sign that he’s on his way to stardom! Look at what he was able to accomplish in just one offseason with American coaches! Think of his potential when he gets to spend every summer working with NBA coaches and trainers!

I feel like over the past month leading up to the draft that in making the case for Len as the No. 1 pick that I’ve had to tear down Noel in the process. In reality, I think Noel will probably be a good NBA player. And I can’t say for sure that I think Len will be a superstar. When judging the potential of these two players it’s foolish to make the arguments on when, but rather it should be if.

If Noel is able to bulk up his frame to at least 250 lbs. he’ll be a force on defense. If he can develop a jump-shot or low-post game his offense can blossom to the point that defenses have to account and game-plan for him. If Len has the fire inside him to be great then he’ll only continue to improve his game. If he continues to get stronger with his post play on defense then he too can be a force on defense. If he refines his low-post game then he can be the best offensive center in the NBA.

If, not when.

And I realize that’s not exciting and that’s not sexy. I realize that when we go into these drafts we want to go nuts and talk about how great these players are and how they’re going to transform our franchise into a champion. But the reality is that this is a weak draft. The reality is that if Noel or Len for that matter were so good that the Cavs would have found it a lot easier to trade the pick. But the fact that they haven’t only serves to further cement the notion that there’s not really a whole lot of difference between the No. 1 pick in this draft and the No. 5. Any of those guys could end being the star of the draft. What will ultimately be the deciding factor will be the situation that they find themselves in and how they work to continually improve their game.

For me, I’m willing to bet on Len because I can see the components of his game that are the foundation of what could be a great player. There’s less presumption and projection with Len than there is for Noel. I truly believe that if he continues to improve and maxes out his potential that he can be the best center in the league. Given his size and athleticism it’s not hard for me to project those improvements on his game. I have a harder time doing that with Noel. I have a hard time grasping how long it will take before a guy who some scouts believe isn’t competent enough to get passed the ball on offense right now will develop into a reliable option. I have a hard time looking at his body and figuring out where he’s going to put 50 extra pounds. I’m not saying it’s impossible or that it can’t happen. All I’m saying is that I have a harder time making that projection in my rationale than I do for Len.[1]

Alex Len is the right pick for the Cavaliers with the No. 1 pick………..probably.

How’s that for conviction?


[1] Did I dance around this enough to avoid the Noel fans from jumping down my throat?

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