With all the discontinuous shifting surrounding the backup center role this season for the Kings, the fact Alex Len got very little, if any chance to step into the job seemed to indicate that he may not be worthy of being played, whether that meant with Sacramento’s fast-paced style or in the league as a whole.
Chimezie Metu easily accumulated the most time as the backup 5 this season, serving essentially two prolonged stints. The first came shortly after his performance against the Warriors in October where he played the entire fourth quarter as the Kings nearly made a comeback. Mike Brown said he liked Metu’s ability to switch in the fourth period, and by the end of the game on Halloween in Charlotte, Richaun Holmes had completely lost his grip on the job, leaving it lorn for Mezie to snag.
That went until about late December when the team was on the East Coast. In the interim for a couple weeks, Brown used Holmes again and even tried Neemias Queta, a two-way contract holder and undeniable project. Len got some time against Denver in December, but outside the context of guarding Nikola Jokic—and only in the single game Domantas Sabonis missed with his thumb fracture—it seemed he was not playable; after all, he received no additional time despite performing decently in the first of two games against the Nuggets.
And not long into January, Brown went back to Metu, who played well for a while, having his up’s and down’s throughout the last handful of months.
Metu proves his worth in his athleticism and length. He runs the floor well, plays above the rim, which makes him a threat for grabbing a lob or residing in the dunker’s spot. The three-point shot that may have been blossoming in the final stretch of the season prior never materialized, but Metu was finding ways to make offensive impacts, especially if defensive stops were involved and the team was out and running.
But Metu has his issues. First of all, he’s the definition of a small 5. What else would you call him? And that lack of an outside shot hurts him, whether or not fans have fond or scornful memories of him putting up jumpers. Plus, while he did a better job of avoiding being trigger happy, he had his fair share of moments where his offensive mindset had him trying to play outside himself, something that appeared to be a big reason he lost the job the first time.
To his credit, Metu had some moments displaying some defensive fundamentals, but the size matchup was not always in his favor. Yet, the decision to stick to the smaller 5 never went anywhere, which seemed only to lend more to the idea that a guy like Len was not useful. Hell, Mike Brown gave Holmes another shot before finally going to Len against Minnesota.
The Timberwolves have good size, so the indication may have been trending towards a matchups-based approach for the backup center role, a notion that makes sense with the playoffs approaching. But over the last two games, Len has far exceeded the degrading expectations that had been festering throughout the whole time he rode the bench.
Be it a two-game stretch or a ten-game stretch, Alex Len has proven he’s playable in a lot more ways than previously thought; he may not be there for the sole purpose of being a body to put on Jokic. More than that he’s making a case for his value on both ends of the floor.
Obviously, the 7-footer is a large presence in the middle, fitting along the lines of a traditional shot-blocker. Being a traditional shot-blocker is not something that excites Mike Brown all that much; as he has said often throughout recent years, coach Brown believes in playing big, doing defensive work early, and not relying on an immovable tower to defend the middle.
However, Len has played like more than a mere stationary swatter. In spite of his size, he’s moved well to defend shots. Any blocks are just residual effects of pretty nice defense. Throughout the previous two games, Len has shown that his verticality can be more than enough: enough to alter shots, make them more difficult, or, in some cases, send them away. In other words, he’s fitting into what Mike Brown wants on defense, allowing his size to do extra work rather than all the work.
Fans will have to wait to see if he can consistently work to defend the pick-and-roll—often a menace to this defense when ran well—but given they don’t have the center switch, Len has a chance to keep being a nice component within Brown’s defense when on the floor.
Offensively, Len brought similar questions. How would a big man that does not come close to being the passer Sabonis is and is not able to stretch the floor in any manner fair among the offense? How would an aircraft carrier run the floor with the jets?
While some of those concerns stand for the moment, there was one thing from Wednesday’s victory that stood out and which plays into Len’s favor on the offensive end. That is, his connection with Malik Monk.
For the sake of redundancy, Monk has been a terrific addition to the Kings. He scores in bunches, uplifts his teammates, has outperformed his defensive expectations, and most alluringly, he’s become one of the best facilitators on the team.
Whether it was becoming clear or already totally clear, having Monk out there can open up east looks for his teammates. Fans saw it at times with Metu.
Honestly, based on a few moments in preseason, it seemed like Monk and Richaun Holmes could form a nice partnership in the pick-and-roll, but nothing of the sort materialized as Holmes’ season has, for whatever exact reason, become a lost one.
But the point is that Monk can integrate someone into the offense, and Wednesday showed Len is a potentially good cohort. That’s probably based on his size, which makes him a big target to throw to, like a tight end or a first baseman, and which makes him dangerous anywhere around the restricted area.
And that’s all the better because Monk draws extra defenders. As seen here and here (the two Monk-Len connections in Wednesday’s game), the attention Monk garners leaves Len with easy buckets that are made easier because of his size. And the moment the defense gives Monk a few more inches of space, he’ll cut into the lane, find a bucket, find the big man for a dump off, or kick the ball out for an open spray three.
Alex Len fits right into the fold, and it’s this potentially nice connection with Monk that allows it.
As to what happens regarding the backup 5 to close the season, it remains unclear, but this much is true: Alex Len has put himself in position to be seriously considered for the role in instances excluding a matchup with a center like Nikola Jokic. His ability to fit into the defense and make a connection with Monk compliment his size and experience.