In Mike Lelchitski's office at Sports International Group, Inc., the company his father, Boris, founded more than a decade ago after emigrating to the United States from Russia, there is a framed panoramic shot of Comcast Center from the first men's basketball game played there in 2002.
Lelchitski said he was in the sellout crowd that day, coming down from the Hagerstown boarding school he was attending. Long before Alex Len surfaced in College Park less than two years ago, Lelchitski was a Maryland fan. A little more than a decade later, the now 28-year-old is Len's agent.
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A former Division III football player who also coached high school basketball in Virginia, Lelchitski said his own background of moving with his family to South Carolina when he was 7 years old and his ability to communicate with Len and his mother, Juliya, in their native language helped the growing Montgomery County-based sports management company land its biggest NBA client.
"[Speaking] Russian, that's kind of a great opportunity that presented itself," Lelchitksi said Thursday, sitting outside at a nearby Starbucks. "I got a chance to meet his mom. The fact that I'm Russian-speaking, obviously, was probably the biggest thing that helped me out in this situation."
Lelchitski now must guide Len through the process of the upcoming NBA draft, a job that was made more challenging when the 7-foot-1 center recently underwent surgery on his left ankle after a partial stress fracture was discovered.
Lelchitski said last week that Len would likely be out "four to six months." On Thursday, he said Len could "get on the court to do some light stuff fairly quickly."
Len is expected to attend the NBA pre-draft combine in Chicago later this month, Lelchitski said. Len was likely not going to play in games at the camp even if he was healthy. Aside from his interviews and getting measured there, Len's injury will certainly be the focus for a number of NBA teams interested in drafting him.
Lelchitski said Len has handled the news of his injury very well.
"Once he felt comfortable with all the facts, he said, 'This [surgery] is the best thing for me. I'm worried about what I can be down the line. If you're worried about draft position right now, you're being short-sighted,' " Lelchitski said. "For a kid his age to act that way is very surprising, it shows his character."
While Len is still considered a likely lottery pick and projected by some draft analysts to be selected as high as No. 5, Lelchitski said the 19-year-old from Ukraine might have even displaced Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel — whom he outplayed in the Terps' season opener in Brooklyn, N.Y. last November — as the No. 1 overall pick had he been able to go through private workouts with teams.
"Undoubtedly [the injury] affects him in some ways. I really think he just misses an opportunity to really skyrocket up the board," Lelchitski said. "Everyone — Alex, coach [Mark] Turgeon — everyone who has seen him understood that he would have been phenomenal in that setting [of the private workouts], one-on-nothing, even one-on-one, he would have shone a lot more than you got to see this year."
Lelchitski said the NBA scouts and executives he has talked with about Len "consider him a true center, and that's rare … it's almost like a vanishing breed."
Recently, former college coach turned analyst Fran Fraschilla wrote on ESPN.com that Len is more of a risk-reward type of draft choice with a potentially higher upside than Noel, who is currently rehabbing after tearing an anterior cruciate ligamentin February.
"The way he worded it is, [for a team picking Len] 'you're swinging for the fences' and that's exactly right," Lelchitski said. "I think most everyone realizes that he has the most upside in the draft, that's obvious, he does. In my mind, if you measure Alex by the progress he's made in the last three or four years and all of a sudden, it's not a questionable pick. The risk comes down."
Lelchitski said a recent conversation with Len was particularly insightful to the progress he made in the two years at Maryland.
After averaging six points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 blocked shots during a freshman year delayed by a 10-game NCAA ban because of his affiliation with a professional team back home, Len improved his sophomore year, finishing with averages of 12 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks.
"He made a great point. He said, 'Last year was really like my freshman year,' " Lelchitski recalled. "Not only the cultural or the language part. Last year was the first time he ever got to individually work skill-wise with a coach. He made the point that he was surprised when he got to Maryland. He couldn't believe that at any time he could go into the gym at Comcast and get some shots up."
Lelchitski said that aside from Len's size — he is now listed at 255 pounds — NBA scouts also are considering his age. He won't turn 20 until June 16, 11 days before the draft.
"If you sit down and look at their ages, Alex is a year younger than the youngest Plumlee. It's really impressive where he is and where he can be," Lelchitski said. "He hasn't been playing basketball for that long. He really does have the potential to be a 10-year starter or more, 12 or 14 years, and a potential all-star. It's not just about getting to that second deal. It's about a long-term, stable, injury-free career."