Alex Len, Maryland, and the NBA

Here’s a stat for you. Former Maryland Terrapins have made three all-NBA teams, ever. Two of these appearances belong to Gene Shue, so if we’re talking about all-NBA appearances in the era when the league had more than eight teams, we’re talking about Buck Williams in 1983. (Wake Forest, a much less accomplished basketball school, has 11 first-team appearances between Tim Duncan and Chris Paul alone)

Williams, having looked this up now, is actually a fairly underrated player, ranking 13th all-time in rebounds and collecting four all-defensive team honors while playing an important role on some early ’90s Portland Trailblazers teams unfortunately relegated to the non-Michael, Magic, and Isiah section of that era’s history. But when Buck Williams is probably the program’s best NBA player (Steve Francis made three all-star teams, but this is completely attributable to being Yao Ming’s teammate, since he made all of them as a starter), there’s something of a schism between the Terps with NBA relevance and those who left a mark in College Park. (Not that Williams wasn’t a great Terp — he made two all-ACC teams — but you don’t see his name on too many hypothetical Terps’ historic starting fives.)

This strange relationship between the program and the NBA leads us to the latest Terp to depart for the NBA, Alex Len. Assuming Len goes in the top 10, as most draft experts seem to be predicting, he will join a pretty impressive list:

Gene Shue
Al Bunge
Tom McMillen
John Lucas
Buck Williams
Albert King
Len Bias
Walt Williams
Joe Smith
Steve Francis
Chris Wilcox

Len is far from the first Terp to leave College Park early by way of a pleasant send-off presser (as opposed to, say, how John Gilchrist left). But most of the others left a far more lasting impact on the program, even if they were, for one reason or another, largely disappointments in the pros.

Chris Wilcox started on a national champion; Joe Smith was the consensus national player of the year on an ACC regular-season title-winner. Even Steve Francis, a ju-co transfer who played a single season at Maryland, was the best player on a No. 2 seed and, to that point, the first Terps team with legitimate title hopes since sometime in the Lefty days. Smith and even Francis have numbers hanging from the Comcast rafters for a reason: They weren’t four-year players, but there was a Joe Smith year, there was a Steve Francis year, in College Park. (And, again, Chris Wilcox started on a national champion.)

For whatever reason, this fanbase doesn’t have much experience sending relatively unremarkable college players into the NBA stratosphere. Maryland doesn’t have guys like Chris Bosh or Derrick Favors, top-5 picks out of Georgia Tech who went a combined 14-18 in ACC play. can go crazy when an announcer casually notes that Wilcox or Steve Blake went to Maryland because, well, for the Terps to even have a 10-year pro on a playoff team actually registers as a meaningful accomplishment here.

Alex Len? He had a less distinguished Terps career than Jordan Williams, who left after his sophomore season and then never got in shape because he thought the season would be cancelled. (And on that second-round contract, that was definitely a risk worth taking.) Based on his tally in all-ACC voting, Len was the 19th best player in the conference. Williams at least left as a first-teamer, on a similarly flawed team.

This isn’t entirely Len’s fault, of course. His lack of college success is partly an indictment of him, but more a casualty of terrible timing; if Len warps time and replaces Williams on the 2010 Terps, he’d have a share of an ACC title, too. Damn right he should go pro; everyone who can secure a first-round contract should go pro. He should’ve been getting paid, in a currency he can use, for two years now. Mark Turgeon said Len’s game is better suited for the NBA, and he’s probably right. Len’s inability to handle double teams should matter a little less when he isn’t on the floor with four 19-year-olds.

Len had his moments. There was his opening-night display at Madison Square Garden, his 19-point, 9-rebound outing against Mason Plumlee in the Terps’ first win over Duke since 2010, and his game-winning putback against N.C. State. But these are moments, not a season, and definitely not a career. His Terps went 8-10 in ACC play, and he threw up a few absolute stinkers along the way. Had Len not gotten himself in foul trouble and posted terrible, 4-point games against mediocre opposition like Florida State and Boston College, maybe the Terps make the NCAA Tournament, with Len as the driving force behind a return to March Madness. Len simply wasn’t good enough, albeit as a sophomore from Ukraine who didn’t even get a full freshman year, to sufficiently accelerate the Terps’ rebuilding process. Someone will be that guy, but at this point it’ll likely be Dez Wells, who already has a sparkling ACC Tournament performance to his name.

Plenty of fans, myself included, look at Len’s draft prospects and scream “Darko!” This really is lazy ethnic sports-comparison at its worst. Len actually seems to enjoy playing basketball; that alone should make him more successful than Darko Milicic. The scary part is, if Len can sneak his way onto a few all-star teams or a third-team all-NBA, he’ll have a legitimate claim, thanks to the accidents and tragedies of history, to being the best Terp pro of all time.

I really have no idea how Len will fare in the NBA. But I do know that I’ll care far less about probable lottery pick Alex Len than I did about late-first rounder Greivis Vasquez. Whatever thrill I might derive from watching Len do something in the league won’t compare to seeing Greivis Vasquez – our Greivis Vasquez! — knock down a huge 3-pointer in a double-overtime playoff game against Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. This is the program we’ve claimed to want. Now we’re getting it.


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