Alex Len had been mentioned as a possible No. 1 overall selection for the Cleveland Cavaliers by a number of websites going into Thursday's NBA draft, and even more prominently to the Charlotte Bobcats at No. 4.
If those picks turned ultimately out to be surprises — the Cavaliers taking Nevada-Las Vegas forward Anthony Bennett with the first pick and the Bobcats choosing Indiana center Cody Zeller with the fourth — the No. 5 pick of the Phoenix Suns turned out to be a “dream come true” for the former Maryland center.
“I'm so excited. … I'm so honored to be here,” Len said to ESPN's Shane Battier shortly after being selected. “I'm so excited I'm going to Phoenix. I just can't explain the words, it's beyond the words. Two years ago, I had no idea I'm going to be here at this point. I'm just happy, man.”
The selection of the 7-foot-1, 255-pound Ukrainian marks the highest of a Maryland player since Steve Francis was picked No. 2 by the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1999. He is the first former Terp taken in the lottery picks (top 14) since Chris Wilcox was selected eighth by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2002.
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, who accompanied Len, his mother and sister to the draft at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., said he was “thrilled” with the selection of Len by the Suns, a rebuilding franchise coming off its worst season in more than 40 years.
“There was a lot of talk of Alex going No. 1, and that got you excited, but we're really happy with Phoenix,” Turgeon said. “Top-five, are you kidding me? It's fantastic.”
Turgeon said Len looked forward to the possibility of going first in the draft — “Alex wanted it, he wasn't scared of being No 1,” Turgeon said — but didn't show any outward disappointment after not hearing his name called first by retiring NBA commissioner David Stern.
“He was so excited to be in this building tonight,” Turgeon said. “He was not upset that he did not go No. 1, visibly. He was so happy. To see him smile and his mom smile was worth all the work. I'm really happy for him.”
That Len is recovering from surgery to stabilize his left ankle after a stress fracture showed up in an MRI in late April could have affected his draft status, since he could not work out for any NBA teams.
Another player recovering from injury, Nerlens Noel of Kentucky, dropped from a potential No. 1 pick himself to the New Orleans Pelicans at No. 6 overall. Noel was then traded to the Philadelphia 76ers in a deal for point guard Jrue Holiday, meaning former Terp Greivis Vasquez could be on his way out after a breakthrough season with the recently renamed New Orleans franchise.
Len's selection also marks the highest any player Turgeon has ever coached has been picked, and should help in Maryland's recruiting of a big man for the 2014 class. A couple of prospects the Terps are reportedly interested in have noted Len's progress from a virtual unknown to a high lottery pick in the two years he spent in College Park.
“I just wanted him to be in a great situation, and with Phoenix, he's in a great situation,” Turegon said.
New Phoenix coach Jeff Hornacek, who was known as an emotional, hard-nosed player during his career, should be “tremendous” for Len as well, Turgeon said.
Len will be going to a team that, at least for now, has a number of veteran big men to learn from and at least two fellow Eastern Europeans to help with his transition to a new city.
The Suns currently have veteran center Marcin Gortat of Poland to help Len, who turned 20 last week, develop. However, the Arizona Republic reported Thursday that the team will try to unload Gortat, whose $7.2million salary is the second-highest on the team's payroll.
Phoenix also has former All-Star Jermaine O'Neal under contract, but at age 34 and with bad knees it seems doubtful that he has many years — or even days — remaining in his career. The other big man on the roster is 7-2 journeyman Hamed Hammadi of Iran. Goran Dragic of Slovenia is the team's starting point guard.
Two other players with local ties were taken near the top of the draft. Indiana swingman Victor Oladipo, who was mostly overlooked when he played at DeMatha in Hyattsville, was picked No. 2 overall by the Orlando Magic. Forward Otto Porter Jr. of Georgetown, the Big East Conference Player of the Year, was taken No. 3 and will stay in Washington with the Wizards.
Asked which player he looks forward to facing, Len didn't hesitate.
“I'm excited to play against Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett,” Len said. “I've been watching them since I was young.”