PHOENIX - When Maryland center Alex Len took the NBA draft stage Thursday night as the Suns' No. 5 draft choice, it was not the first time the 20-year-old Ukrainian outshined Kentucky center Nerlens Noel at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
To start the past college basketball season on Nov. 9, Len's Maryland team lost to Noel's Kentucky team, but Len won the center matchup. Len posted 23 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks on Noel, the center who was often associated with the draft's top pick until Thursday night.
The Suns did not just think Len was the best center in this year's draft. The Suns thought Len was the best player in this year's draft.
"I was really excited," Len said of being selected by the Suns. "I'm blessed that Phoenix selected me. I just can't wait to go to the city and meet my new team and coaches and be part of the Phoenix family."
The Suns brass started salivating once Cleveland dropped jaws by taking UNLV's Anthony Bennett first. Prior to that, the Suns discussed trading up in the draft order to be able to get Len, who teams began to believe was going to Cleveland.
The Suns passed on Noel and Kansas shooting guard Ben McLemore because of their belief in Len's high ceiling.
They carried out their theme of starting a franchise turnaround on young potential by trading up one spot to No. 29 to ensure they would get Kentucky 18-year-old Archie Goodwin, whom they project as a point guard with top-notch athleticism at 6 feet 5 inches.
The Suns also drafted a strong rebounder in Missouri 6-9, 255-pound power forward Alex Oriakhi at No. 57.
Len's selection spurred speculation that the Suns could be trading center Marcin Gortat, but the Suns quickly squashed that by talking about Gortat helping to develop Len and the possibility of even playing them together.
Gortat's trade value, being in his prime and in the final year of his contract, could be better at the February trade deadline.
Len is a 7-1, 255-pound center who is fairly new to basketball after growing up as a gymnast in the small Ukrainian coal-mining town of Antratsit. As he shot up in height in his early teens, Len switched to basketball and eventually was part of the national team program when Suns general manager Ryan McDonough first saw him as a member of Boston's staff.
Len moved to the United States two years ago to play at Maryland, where he quickly learned English and a different basketball style and culture. As a sophomore this season, Len averaged 11.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks and showed all-around potential while playing inconsistently.
Suns coach Jeff Hornacek called it a "no-brainer" to take Len over McLemore and Noel.
"Any time you can get a 7-1 guy with a long wingspan, and he's athletic, he's got skills, and he's 20 years old, it's a bright piece for the future," Hornacek said.