COLLEGE PARK – Alex Len didn’t choose basketball. It chose him.
Growing up in eastern Ukraine, Len was more concerned with cartwheels than jump shots. He was an action film aficionado and took gymnastics classes hoping to emulate his idol, Jackie Chan.
One day, a local high school basketball coach visited Len’s gymnastics center and noticed the scrawny 10-year-old towering over his older classmates. The coach promptly escorted Len to a gymnasium, gave him a basketball and told him to shoot.
“I remember I shot it and I made it,” the 7-foot-2 Maryland Terrapins center said Tuesday in his first meeting with reporters since arriving in College Park 13 months ago. “[The coach] said, ‘See, you were born to play basketball.’”
There’s never been much doubt Len, who averaged six points and 5.4 rebounds in 22 games as a freshman last year, was made for the hardwood. He’s a rare breed — a rangy big man who runs the floor like a guard. He can swat a shot, sprint down the court and spot up for a three-pointer.
Those skills, of course, brought expectations. Before Len ever stepped on a Division I basketball court, NBA analysts labeled him a “future lottery pick.” They praised his potential, gushed over his height and noted his perfect shooting form. They figured he’d be an impact player for the Terps from day one, that it was only a matter of time before he developed into a surefire superstar.
What they didn’t necessarily take into account? Len was lost.
After enrolling in classes days into the fall 2011 semester, the Ukraine national team member struggled to adapt to his new surroundings. He barely spoke a word of English and couldn’t understand his coaches and teammates.
When roommate John Auslander asked him simple questions, Len pulled out his laptop and visited translation websites. When he wanted to get food at a restaurant, he simply pointed at the menu and hoped servers figured out his order. And when Terps fans approached Len on the street, he blushed with embarrassment.
“I think the first three months were the hardest because I didn’t know any language,” said Len, who just recently became comfortable enough with English to address the media. “I knew just a little bit, but it wasn’t good enough to communicate.”
It didn’t help that Len became the subject of an NCAA eligibility probe shortly after he signed with the Terps. And after using up all of his temporary eligibility in preseason workouts, Len wasn’t able to play with the team once practices began in September.
Thus, Len was forced to sit and watch while the NCAA investigated his ties to a European pro team — a process that eventually ended in a 10-game suspension.
“It was really tough for him,” said Auslander, a junior forward. “You could tell he just wanted to be out there and be with the guys. It was killing him not to practice.”
Len finally made his college debut in the Terps’ 83-72 win over Albany on Dec. 28. He netted his first of five dunks 54 seconds into regulation, and earned a standing ovation after 12 minutes. When Len took a seat in the game’s waning moments to chants of “We love Alex!” he had 14 points, eight rebounds and three blocks.
“It was an unbelievable feeling,” Len said. “Just to get on the court and see that huge crowd, it was amazing.”
The feeling wouldn’t last. Although Len averaged 13.3 points and nine rebounds over his next three games, he struggled mightily in ACC play. He reached double-digit point totals just twice during the Terps’ final 18 games and was often benched after getting into early foul trouble.
The rail-thin Len dropped easy passes, struggled to post up smaller defenders and appeared generally confused.
Still unable to grasp the English language, Len often couldn’t understand which play the point guard was calling. When he caught the ball in the low post, he didn’t know whether to dribble, pass or shoot.
“How the hell did we win 17 games?” coach Mark Turgeon asked with a smile. “He didn’t understand a word I was saying. I should’ve won Coach of the Year.”
Len used last season’s shortcomings to help motivate him through a strenuous summer slate of workouts, weightlifting and English tutorials.
After spending much of last year trying to convince Turgeon to let him be a finesse player, Len has devoted himself into developing a low-post presence. He added 30 pounds of muscle and expanded his arsenal of post moves — improvements Turgeon said have made Len “close to being twice as good” down low.
“When you guys see him for the first time,” the second-year coach said, “you’ll be like, ‘Wow, he did grind it this summer. He worked at it.’”
That should become evident Nov. 9 when the Terps face defending national champion Kentucky at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. in their season opener. Len, who will likely match up against freshman phenom Nerlens Noel, is anxious for an opportunity to prove his worth against the country’s best.
After spending the past year getting comfortable and acclimated, the former gymnast is ready to show why he was born to play basketball.
“I’m really excited,” Len said. “It’s going to be a great challenge.”