A pair of black crutches more than six feet tall leaned against a wall in a Comcast Center room Monday morning, reaching nearly halfway to the ceiling.
Former Terrapins men’s basketball center Alex Len had relied on those mammoth crutches for transportation for two months until Tuesday, when he was cleared to walk on his own for the first time since undergoing surgery in early May to stabilize a partial stress fracture in his left ankle.
But that hasn’t stopped the 7-foot-1 Ukrainian from preparing for the NBA draft, to be held at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on June 27. Len has traveled across the country visiting teams for personal interviews and works out six days a week with Terps basketball performance director Kyle Tarp.
“Of course I was upset. You don’t want to have injuries [before the draft],” said Len, whom Sports Illustrated and DraftExpress project as a top-five pick. “But I’m not worried about it. I am still trying to get better, still able to work out.”
Though Len’s left foot remains in a walking boot, he can lift weights, shoot from a chair and work on his reflexes. Plus, he can display his mental makeup in interviews with coaches and executives.
Len has already visited five teams — the New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Charlotte Bobcats — and is scheduled to meet with the Cleveland Cavaliers later this week. The Times-Picayune of New Orleans reported Monday that the Cavaliers are considering taking Len with the top pick in the draft.
But when Len is back in College Park, he’s in the gym. He hopes to be fully healthy in time for NBA training camp in early October.
“I’m really impressed with what he’s able to do with the injury, not just strength-wise, but he’s even doing some basketball stuff,” Terps coach Mark Turgeon said. “He’s always been a hard worker, and I’m proud of him. He’s a lot farther along than a lot of other guys would be at this point.”
Those work habits, combined with Tarp’s exercise and diet regimen, helped Len add muscle to his athletic frame last offseason, a detail Len said attracted more interest from NBA scouts.
“He changed my body last summer,” Len said. “That’s what [scouts] wanted.”
So Len has continued his strength training with Tarp since declaring for the draft in April, though he has been restricted to upper-body workouts since the ankle surgery. But he’s also committed to developing other skills vital to success in the NBA.
Len, who averaged 11.9 points and 7.8 rebounds in his sophomore season, said his shooting touch could be more valuable at the next level and that his time spent shooting from a chair has helped his form.
Then there’s the reflex machine. Len will sit in front of a big board with buttons that randomly light up in certain areas. The center then tries to tap the buttons as quickly as he can, moving his hands in a motion akin to reaching in to strip the ball from an opponent or deflect a pass.
The machine monitors his progress, and Len feels developing better reflexes is key to playing professionally. In the NBA, big men are often counted on to quickly slide to stop opponents driving to the rim when playing help-side defense and catch bullet passes on offense.
“You need good reflexes because the [NBA] game is so fast,” Len said. “That’s what makes it so different from college.”
Playing in the NBA certainly isn’t the same as competing in the ACC, but Turgeon thinks Len is perfectly suited to make the adjustments because of his size, instincts and ability to stretch the floor on offense.
And the third-year coach knows his former center will put in the effort to succeed against the world’s best players.
“The kid is hungry,” Turgeon said. “He doesn’t just want to be drafted, he wants to be one of the best players in the NBA. It’s a good trait to have.”
But next week, Len said he won’t be thinking about competing in All-Star games or championships. He just wants to enjoy the moment of being drafted into the NBA.
His mother and sister flew in from Ukraine and will attend the draft. Len’s almost finished visiting teams, and he’s finally ditched those pesky crutches.
Len’s reality is setting in: He’s going to be an NBA player.
“Are you kidding? I’m very excited,” Len said. “It’s like I have been chasing this dream since I was 13.”