When the crisis in his native Ukraine started to escalate, Alex Len thought about returning home, if only for his family’s sake.
His mother, Juliya, escaped much of the recent political turmoil, moving in last summer to her son’s new Phoenix home. His extended family, though, isn’t as fortunate; the strife was sure to make daily life more difficult, regardless of its affiliations and beliefs.
To ensure the safety of his mother’s parents, Len asked them to stay with him, and they arrived in the United States two months ago. Still, he knows he can’t provide for everybody, and he has come to realize that home, as he knew it, no longer exists.
“I actually have family in Crimea, which became part of Russia,” Len said. “It’s crazy now, because we have family, like, in Ukraine, and now it’s Russia. I used to go to them every summer, and now I need to get a visa to go and see my family.”
Len, the former Maryland center drafted by the Phoenix Suns in June, has faced his share of adjustments over the past nine months. Speaking before the Suns‘ eventual 99-93 victory over the Washington Wizards at Verizon Center on Wednesday, it was clear coming to terms with the situation back home has been the biggest challenge.
“I watch Russian news, I watch American news and I watch Ukrainian news,” Len said. “Everybody say different things, so I don’t really know what’s going on. But I’m not a politician. All I want is nobody gets hurt, and I’m just praying for peace, you know?”
Len began scrawling that message – #PrayForUkraine, referring to a topic on Twitter – on the rubber of his sneakers earlier this month. In that game, March 4, in which he also made his first start, he had six points and six rebounds in 19 minutes of a 104-96 home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.
His contributions have been steadily rising since the beginning of the season, when he missed 28 of the Suns‘ first 32 games as he recovered from offseason surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left ankle. The recovery, Len said, has been slow; after playing in the first two games of the season, the pain was so unbearable he couldn’t walk.
“I think finally, now, it feels good where we’ve been able to put him out there – and he plays well,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. “He takes up space. You know, we’re not using him right now in terms of a ‘throw it to him in the post’ type of deal. We want him to play defense and have an effect on the game that way, and he’s done a nice job when he’s gotten in there.”
The 7-foot-1 center has averaged 2.2 points and 2.4 rebounds in 8.8 minutes this season, and he tied a season high with nine points in a victory over the Orlando Magic last week.
On Wednesday, Len entered the game against the Wizards with 1:31 remaining in the first quarter and blocked guard John Wall’s driving layup attempt 40 seconds later, but he finished with just one rebound and the block in four minutes, all in the first half.
“I know the more he gets to play, the more comfortable he gets on both ends of the court,” said Suns center Miles Plumlee. “It’s gonna come together, but he definitely knows [as] a big, if you bring the defense and the rebounding, everything else is just icing on the cake. That will come.”
Len said he has already learned a lot during his rookie season, and he may get one more lesson before it’s over. The Suns, at 43-29, are on the cusp of the playoff picture – a surprising performance for a team expected to finish in the bottom half of the Western Conference this season.
“This year is so much fun because nobody, obviously, expected us to be that good,” Len said, “and we’re playing great.”