The Hawks didn’t have much interest in free agency last summer. As a rebuilding organization, their main concerns were acquiring draft picks or young assets and maintaining financial flexibility, as General Manager Travis Schlenk has reiterated over and over since taking the job in May of 2017.
The Ukranian native chose to attend Maryland and stayed for two years, rocketing up draft boards in the process. His name was called by the Phoenix Suns with the 5th overall pick in 2013, but he failed to live up to the billing of a high lottery pick out West.
In five seasons with Phoenix, Len did not average more than 8.5 points in a season and averaged 7.2 points for his career, never fully earning the trust of the Suns’ brass and their rotating door of head coaches.
“In Phoenix, there was a lot of changes. I went through three different coaches, three different coaching staffs,” Len said. “It was a lot. New coach comes in, and he puts in a new system. There wasn’t a lot of stability.”
When the Suns let Len know he was going to become a free agent, the then 24-year old center had this to say, “I think it’s going to be exciting. It’s the first time I’m actually going to have a chance to go where I want to go.”
He chose Atlanta – where he has been allowed to expand his game to fit the modern NBA. Len had only attempted 25 three-pointers before signing with the Hawks, but that wasn’t going to fly under his new head coach, Lloyd Pierce.
“I feel like I always could shoot,” said Len. “But once I got to Maryland, the coach kind of, just wanted me to be more like a traditional big playing back to the basket. I feel like, in America, people never see that side, but I always could shoot it. Everybody has seen it, but just, coaches never asked me to shoot it. Once I got here, Lloyd saw me shoot it, and was like I want you to develop that part of your game.”
Like most centers who are given the green light from the perimeter, Len didn’t waste much time chucking them up. He’s gone from a player who had 25-career three-point attempts to averaging two threes a contest. And Lloyd Pierce believes this is just the beginning of Len expanding his game.
“The goal for us all year was to develop the three-point shot,” Pierce said. “The fact that he is shooting over 34%, a lot of that is because of the last couple of weeks, its even more of an improvement. If we can get him over 35%, I’d love to get him at least three attempts per game. I think going into the offseason there was a confidence, and I talked to him, this first-year people are going to say it is a fluke – five-man shooting threes – so next year he comes into it, I don’t think people are going to say its a fluke. They are going to say we got to defend him because he is a pick and pop threat, similar to what we have in Dewayne (Dedmon).”
Len’s expanded game has led to the best offensive season of his still young career. He’s putting up an even 10.0 points in only 19.3 minutes per game on 48.3% shooting from the field and 34.4% shooting from behind the arc, including a fantastic beginning to March in which he is averaging 16.3 points and 7.5 rebounds in extended minutes due to the periodic absences of both John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon.
The Hawks took a flier on Len – a former top-five pick with the size, athleticism and skill set needed to succeed in the modern NBA. They hoped they could find a diamond in the rough. After almost one year, Len’s proven them correct.
He’s turned into a unique 7’1″ stretch-five that can still do his duties of rolling to the basket but can also test the defense by popping to the perimeter. This remains a role Len is getting used to, having never been asked to shoot the ball since he was in high school, but it is becoming increasingly noticeable that he is beginning to feel more confident.
Len is under contract for one more year and could potentially play a more significant role on the team as Dewayne Dedmon sets to hit free agency this summer. With the Hawks still expecting to be in a rebuilding phase, Len will have the opportunity to audition for a role on the team past the 2020 season, and perhaps the starting center spot for the Hawks.