Len ready, willing to follow Chandler's lead

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LAS VEGAS -- Alex Len didn’t look at it as losing his starting job.

Len, the fifth overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, figures he gained a mentor when the Phoenix Suns signed 14-year veteran Tyson Chandler to a four-year, $52 million deal this summer.

“He’s a great leader, something we needed,” Len said. “We needed a veteran last year. We finally got one -- somebody in the locker room and on the court who everybody can look up to. I think it’s great for the team.

“I’m excited just to learn from him. He said he wants to be my mentor. I’m really excited about it.”

Chandler told Len he wanted to take the 22-year-old 7-footer under his wing when the two talked for about 10 minutes before the Suns introduced their new starting center in a press conference. It’d be hard to find a more eager pupil than Len, who averaged 6.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks as the Suns’ primary starting center last season.

Len, who didn’t begin playing basketball until he was 10 years old in his native Ukraine, embraces opportunities to continue learning the game. That’s why he’s playing in the Las Vegas Summer League, which is extremely rare for a player with two years of NBA experience and a guaranteed contract.

“I feel like a rookie still,” Len said, noting that an ankle injury and broken finger prevented him from playing summer-league ball the past two years.

The Suns say that they are pleased with the development of Len, who they knew was a project when they drafted him out of Maryland. He’s been impressive against lesser competition in Vegas, averaging 11.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 23.3 minutes per game for a Suns teams that moves on to Sunday's quarterfinals after a 91-84 win over the Bulls.

“Big guys always take a little bit longer,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. “The game is a lot faster than in college, so that’s a big adjustment for them. I think he’s progressed great. He didn’t get much of a chance his first year because he was hurt. Really, the second year is when he got little minutes early and then showed that he could go out there and be a starter and get bigger minutes. I think he’s right on track.”

Chandler can be considered proof that centers sometimes require patience in the developmental process.

The former high school prodigy went straight to the NBA and was drafted second overall. But he didn’t really blossom until he was 24 years old and after the Chicago Bulls traded him to the New Orleans Hornets.

Now the Suns hope that Chandler can help expedite that process for Len, not stunt his development. Len will still get significant playing time, as the Suns will be careful not to overwork Chandler.

“I think Tyson will really give them the little hints that all young players need, regardless of position,” Hornacek said. “That’s why veteran guys look like they’re in slow motion out there, because they know all the shortcuts, they know all the tricks. Alex wants that. He wants to learn all those little things. He knows he’s only 22. He’s got a lot of years. We don’t have to throw him to the wolves so early in his career.”

The Suns particularly believe that Chandler’s wisdom will benefit Len on the defensive end of the floor.

Hornacek said Len often struggled with vocally directing the defense the way the Suns expect from their centers because of his inexperience. Len was often so focused on executing his individual responsibilities that he couldn’t keep up with what all his teammates needed to do.

Chandler, the vocal leader and defensive backbone of Dallas’ 2011 title team and the NBA’s defensive player of the year the next season for the New York Knicks, is widely considered one of the league’s best on-court communicators.

He has also earned a reputation as one of the league’s most respected locker room leaders. Len is willing to follow and plans to study how Chandler handles himself as a leader, a role Len hopes to fill down the road.

“I talked to the front office and they said Tyson is 32, so these next few years, just try to learn as much as I can from him,” Len said. “Over the next however many years, when I mature, it’s going to be my time to step up and I’ve got to be ready.”