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Player Preview: Is Alex Len due for a breakout now that he’s in a winning situation?

After years on mediocre teams, Alex Len finally has a chance to validate his top-5 draft selection and contribute to a playoff contender.

2020-21 Toronto Raptors Content Day Photo by Scott Audette/NBAE via Getty Images

January 8.

It’s not a special day on the calendar. Memories of the holiday season have begun to fade. In a regular NBA season, early returns from All-Star voting start trickling in. For the Raptors, it’s the early part of what should be a long season. For Alex Len, it’s an early indicator of what ends up feeling like a long season!

Over the last five seasons, Len’s teams have had the following records:

2015-16: 23-59 (Suns)

2016-17: 24-58 (Suns)

2017-18: 21-61 (Suns)

2018-19: 29-53 (Hawks)

2019-20: 20-47 (Hawks, who he spent most of the season with before being traded to the Kings at the trade deadline)

Now, let’s take a look at when the Raptors achieved those win totals in their respective seasons:

2015-16: 56-26 (win #23 on Game 38, January 8)

2016-17: 51-31 (win #24 on Game 35, January 5)

2017-18: 59-23 (win #21 on Game 29, December 20)

2018-19: 58-24 (win #29 on Game 41, January 5)

2019-20: 53-19 (win #20 on Game 28, December 20)

Len’s teams have finished their respective seasons with a win total that Toronto would achieve no later than January 8! He owns the dubious title as the active leader in career games played (461) without making the playoffs. Do you think he might be just a tad excited to join a contender?

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Alex Len has played for some bad teams throughout his young career. The fifth overall pick in the 2013 draft — an uneventful draft that included Anthony Bennett at no. 1, Cody Zeller one spot ahead of Len, Nerlens Noel one spot after Len, and a soon-to-be free agent a few more spots back — was selected by the Phoenix Suns. After spending five seasons in Arizona, he spent the last two seasons with the Atlanta Hawks and Sacramento Kings. Suffice to say, he’s had plenty of off-season time to hone his craft.

“It takes a toll on you — all of the losing,” Len said at his first Raptors media call. “You’re basically playing for stats and for yourself. You start noticing that guys start not making the extra pass. They think about their stat sheet.”

While Len is obviously happy to finally be on a contender, he’s not settling on just being a bit role player. Len is excited to develop and contribute, citing his new teammates’ growth.

“Like Pascal [Siakam] came through, I remember playing him four years ago and he was just a guy who was running the floor, passing, finishing, then you see him three years later and he’s doing everything, putting it on the floor, he’s an All-Star.

“Then you see a lot of guys who came through here, international players and just flourishing. Even VanVleet came in, nobody knew about the guy and you see three or four years later, he’s an All-Star-type player. So player development. Everybody knows about the player development in Toronto, that’s for sure.”

“So I feel like every international player that came through always got better, they came and then in a few years you see them flourishing and just developing. So I was always interested and intrigued by that.” Len added. “It felt like a good fit.”

How that fit looks remains to be seen. Len’s time in Atlanta saw a significant boost in 3-point shooting — from 25 total 3-point attempts in five seasons with Phoenix to 204 attempts in his first season with Atlanta — but Nurse seemed unconvinced, at least initially, and instead highlighted Len’s size. “I’m not sure on the shooting part quite yet,” said Nurse. “I would say that my initial thought is we probably want him underneath the basket in the dunker (spot), rolling hard on screens, being a force on the offensive boards.”

On that note, Len has some very useful tools that fill some of Toronto’s needs. Last season, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Raptors big in the paint on the offensive end (24th in offensive rebounds per game) or the defensive end (career-worst marks in block percentage for Serge Ibaka (1.5%, 47th percentile among bigs) and Marc Gasol (1.7%, 51st percentile), according to CleaningTheGlass.com. In Len, Toronto addresses those holes, albeit in limited minutes, by ranking very high in offensive rebounding FG% (92nd percentile), offensive rebounding FT% (97th percentile), and block % (89th percentile among bigs). He’ll provide that big presence in the paint that Jonas Valanciunas used to fill in Toronto, and one that was often missed during the Bubble.

As for Len’s outside shot, he’s shown signs of a modern-day, 3-point shooting big. After the 2019 All-Star break, Len actually led the Hawks with 41 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Among bigs, he ranked in the 78th percentile in non-corner threes in 2018-19. A dramatic dip in 3-point FG% (27.1%) last season is likely the cause of Nurse’s skepticism, but at least Len has shown he can hit from beyond the arc.

The Suns and Hawks both performed better offensively when Len sat, but the opposite on defense. Even in his short time with the Kings (15 games between the trade deadline and the shutdown), Sacramento was 18.4 points better defensively with Len on the floor. In Toronto’s system, Len will provide defensive stability to a bench unit well-equipped to carry the load offensively with Norman Powell, Terence Davis, and Matt Thomas in tow. To say Len is excited to join a winning program is grossly understated.

Len won’t have to wait long before he plays his former teams. Two days after playing the Suns, Len will suit up in Sacramento with an extra pep in his step as the Raps face the Kings... on January 8!