CHICAGO -- Alex Len came to the NBA draft combine Friday on crutches, because the 7-1 center still can’t walk after surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left ankle.
The Wizards talked to him Thursday, but Len’s injury creates uncertainty that makes the June 27th NBA draft even more unpredictable.
The Ukrainian is just 19 after finishing his sophomore season with the Maryland Terrapins. He has broad shoulders, moves well for a big man and comes from athletic family in which his mother ran track. Len was a gymnast as a youth.
He averaged 11.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game and shot 53.4% from the field last season.
“It went well," said Len, who said of his interview with the Wizards who lack depth in the low post and will have a lottery pick. "It's kind of like my hometown in Maryland. ... Sure I would like to play for the team. Maryland, I have a second family there. It would be great to play there."
Because of his size and potential, Len could go high in the draft lottery. The order will be determined May 21 and the Wizards (29-53) have just a 3.5% chance of landing the No. 1 overall pick. If they were to get the top pick, it's very doubtful they'd use it on Len.
Because of Len’s injury, however, his stock is more likely to plummet. He took off his cast and got stitches removed three days ago and should be fully recovered in six months which would be just in time for the regular season. He should be walking unassisted on draft night when his name is called.
Len talked to at least 10 teams that also included the Toronto Raptors, Cleveland Cavaliers, Denver Nuggets and Chicago Bulls.
But consider that more NBA teams appear to be no longer selecting size for the sake of size. They want to see skill. Len’s inability to work out at the combine or before the draft creates a problem given that he only appeared in 60 games at Maryland and played fewer than 25 minutes per.
"It would be nice to see him in these types of workouts," said Ryan Blake, senior director of NBA scouting operations. "If someone's done their homework well, gone to practices, gone to see those games and crunched those numbers and you like him, that's good. But he's got his ankle issues. I don't think that helps him. It would've been good to have all the teams see him. He can't help that. He's going to get drafted. It may be high lottery or it may be low first round. You just don't know.
"It's early. Its a draft where you go, 'There's a lot of good players here.'"
An even bigger problem, of course, is the potential for re-injury to Len and how recent history works against him. Two marquee big men in the NBA had their careers ended because of leg injuries that altered the course of history for their franchises.
Greg Oden, the No. 1 overall pick in 2007, missed his entire rookie season and only played in 82 career games. The 7-foot center hasn't played since 2010 though he has hinted at trying to play again. Oden had two microfracture surgeries on his right knee and one on his left. He also had surgery for a cracked left kneecap.
Yao Ming, the No. 1 overall pick in 2002 for the Houston Rockets, had his career ended because of three stress injuries to his left foot. Yao, a 7-6 center, missed the 2009-10 season with a broken left foot and retired after playing just five games in 2010- 11 when he broke his left ankle.
Big men in particular appear susceptible to re-injury when it comes to damaged knees, ankles and feet. Yao weighed 310 pounds, Oden 285 and Len is still growing at 255.
"It was tough," Len said of the stress fracture diagnosis. "I got the feedback from doctors right after I announced that I'm going to the NBA so it was a bad timing for the injury. I’d been playing probably the last two months of the season with the injury but I thought it was a bone spur, the doctor told me. But I did (an) MRI right after the season and we found out it was a stress fracture."
A franchise such as the Wizards, who are determined to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2007-08, can't wait for a young player to develop. They want an impact player who can help them now. John Wall and Nene missed training camp and didn't start last season in uniform because of injuries. The Wizards don't want to repeat that and get off on the wrong foot again. No pun intended.
"I can't argue with that. I really can't," Blake said. "You don't know. From his perspective, Len is going to be out for four (to six) months but they feel they're going to be ready for (the start) of the NBA season. If they'd waited until after the draft (for surgery), Len wouldn't have performed as well (at the combine) and wouldn't be able to play during camp."