Sixth Pick Tournament Round One: Alex Len vs Shabazz Muhammad

Published: May 28, 2013

In the second match-up in round one of the Sixth Pick Tournament, Michael Pellissier and Ryan Schwan face off, arguing the merits of drafting Alex Len vs Shabazz Muhammad. Read and vote for your pick at the bottom. 

The Case for Alex Len (Pellissier)

True 7-foot centers always carry a high level of intrigue because there are so few of them. They are so rare, in fact, that serious deficiencies in their skill sets are often overlooked by GMs. For instance, many strong 7 footers are unable to defend on the perimeter; conversely, the rail-thin 7 footers get thrown around like rag dolls in the paint. The 7-footer who can both hold his ground and defend near the perimeter is an unusual and substantial asset to his team.

Enter Alex Len, the sophomore from the University of Maryland. Len is currently rated as the 7th best prospect in the DraftExpress database and has an excellent physical foundation to build upon. Jonathan Givony says this about Len:

“The intrigue around Len begins with his outstanding physical profile. Standing 7-1, with a huge wingspan, big shoulders, and a frame that will surely fill out nicely over the next few years, Len clearly has terrific tools to work with. He’s also a very good athlete for his size, as he runs the floor well, elevates off the ground quickly, and is capable of playing above the rim with ease.”

But Len is more than just a 7-footer with athleticism, as he has already shown signs of an emerging jumper. He also has a soft touch around the rim and is nimble enough to execute spin moves to navigate around his defender. Most importantly, Len is an excellent fit next to Anthony Davis. Len can rebound, step out and hit a jumper, and defend in the post against bigger post presences.

Len had a breakout performance versus fellow draft prospect and surefire top-5 pick Nerlens Noel, posting 23 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 blocked shots. He also did some of his work that night on Willie Cauley-Stein, who is a raw player but an excellent athlete. Len showcased many of his abilities that night: he ran the floor, executed some spins in the post, blocked shots, finished at the rim, hit a turnaround in the post, and drilled an 18 footer in Cauley-Stein’s face; most importantly, he did all of this versus players with very good NBA athleticism and size to match.

Here are a couple of things that Len does that will translate to him becoming a very good NBA player.


7-footers with large wingspans are a threat to block any shot near the rim, even if they are not particularly athletic. Consider that Roy Hibbert and Brook Lopez are among the league leading shot-blockers even though neither is mobile. You cannot teach size, and Alex Len has it. Opposing defenses can take shot-blockers out of the paint by bringing the men they defend out to the perimeter: the shot-blocker is forced to give up open shots (to the Kevin Garnetts and Chris Boshes of the world) or to abandon the paint and limit his ability to alter shots near the rim. Anthony Davis is going to be an excellent shot-blocker for years, and other teams will draw him out of the paint, but what if the Pelicans had another shot-blocker on the floor? Having Len and Davis on the floor together would ensure that there is always a legit shot-blocking big near the rim.

Defending in space

Here is where most 7-footers lose their bearings. These guys are almost never adept at defending away from the basket, as their heavy feet prevent them from adjusting to the quick movements of opposing guards and forwards. Conversely, according to Jonathan Givony, “Len has quick feet and good timing stepping out and hedging screens on the perimeter, something you usually don’t see 7-1 centers do too often. His main virtue lies as a rim protector, though. He’s so tall and long he often doesn’t even have to leave his feet to block a shot, and he has a tremendous knack for using his wingspan to alter and reject shots around the rim.”

Len’s offensive skill set is still raw, but he should be able to step in as a pick and roll threat right away due to his athleticism, size, and soft touch near the basket. If nothing else, this, combined with his ability to both defend in the paint and on the perimeter, will make him a very valuable piece for the Pelicans. If and when he does develop his offensive game, he will be a mid-range threat, pick and roll threat, and should easily be able to post up small-ball centers due to his size advantage.

His physical foundation and emerging skill set give him excellent potential as an NBA center, and he should fit wonderfully next to Davis. Selecting him would give the Pelicans a versatile frontcourt that could deal with anyone once he and Davis have developed.

Why You Shouldn’t Want Shabazz Muhammad

1. Let’s hope the apple falls very far from the tree. Muhammad’s dad is legitimately crazy. From picking out his wife based on breeding science, to falsifying Shabazz’s age, and to bribing reporters, Ron Holmes, Shabazz’s father, is nuts. They are two separate people, but if you believe at all in “nurture,” you should be absolutely terrified that Ron Holmes is the man that raised Shabazz.

2. Muhammad has been compared by some to James Harden, but that comparison is completely unsubstantiated. Every left-hander with any scoring ability is compared to Manu Ginobili or Harden, but those guys are special players and rare finds. Harden was far more efficient in his freshman year at ASU than Muhammad was at UCLA, registering a full 10% higher in TS%. This is an enormous difference in efficiency. Harden also averaged 3.2 assists while Muhammad averaged 0.8. Also keep in mind that, because Muhammad’s age was lied about, he is the age of a college sophomore.

3. Muhammad’s assists per game average was 0.8. To put it in perspective, Carmelo Anthony averaged 2.2 assists per game in college. Muhammad is also rumored to not pass the salt at team dinners.

4. Most of Muhammad’s intrigue comes as a scorer, and his supporters point out his “alpha male mentality” as an asset to his NBA future because it’ll allow him to take big shots down the stretch.. but will his offense translate to a #1 option? According to DraftExpress, he received just 6% of his offense from initiating the pick and roll or in isolation. This is an astoundingly low number, and if you envision Muhammad as a Kobe or Melo type, you will be seriously disappointed. The best NBA scorers have the ability to create their own shots, and although it isn’t the prettiest basketball, they must be able to score in isolation. Consider these statistics:

% of offense in isolation and pick and roll
LeBron James: 24.2% + 17.1% = 41.3%
Russell Westbrook: 18.9% + 29.5% = 48.4%
Kevin Durant: 23.7% + 13.7% = 37.4%
Carmelo Anthony: 27.1% + 10.6% = 37.7%
Kobe Bryant: 28.3% + 20.5% = 48.8%
James Harden: 27.0% + 24.8% = 51.8%

Shabazz Muhammad (college): ? + ? = 6%

*DraftExpress did not provide how much of Muhammad’s combined 6% from the pick and roll and isolation came from each category.

Muhammad will have to drastically alter the way he operates on offense to fulfill the role of a primary scorer. NBA offensive sets don’t always work, and teams need guys who can get the ball after a broken play and create their own offense on the fly. Muhammad has not shown an ability to operate in isolation and may be better served as a secondary scorer in the NBA.

Well, that’s where things get tricky. Muhammad wants the ball in crunch time. In a game this year versus Washington, he was infuriated when Larry Drew II didn’t get him the ball for the final shot. Drew made the shot and won the game, inciting a full team celebration, but Muhammad, still steaming from not getting the ball, chose to walk away and ignore his teammates.  Truthfully, I could understand Muhammad’s reaction if the shot had missed, but it didn’t. UCLA won the game and he just didn’t care.

If Shabazz is going to act like that when he doesn’t get the ball, and he hasn’t shown that he can create for himelf, how is he going to fare in the NBA? He is known for his competitive streak, but my biggest litmus test for athletes is how they respond when things aren’t going well. Players concerned with “getting theirs” are often not a problem when times are good, but when the road gets rough, these players can be cancerous on the court and in the locker room. In fact, Givony points out this about Muhammad: “his energy level (on defense) is highly dependent on how he’s faring on the other end of the court. When he misses a shot or doesn’t touch the ball on a given possession he can be slow to get back on defense, and his lateral quickness appears to be just average on top of that.” This kind of conditional effort is not something you want in any of your players.

In sum, Muhammad has very questionable intangibles, he is a terrible passer, his effort on defense comes and goes, he wasn’t efficient in college, his dad is crazy, and he’s already a year older than his classmates. There are far too many question marks surrounding Muhammad to justify selecting him 6th, and it’s debatable whether Schwan could even pronounce (or spell, see below) Muhammad’s name.

The Case for Shabazz Muhammad (Schwan)

And now, dear friends, we come to a contest between what seems to be a very unequal contest.

In this corner, we have Shabazz Muhammad, the Fallen Star, former consensus #1 High School prospect of Rivals, Scouts, and ESPN.  After just one season, no player has had as much bad (or at best, luke-warm) press, dealt with an age-related scandal, and has looked more one-dimensional as a basketball prospect that Shabazz Muhammad has.  At the combine, he measured small for his position, shot poorly,  and no one seemed impressed by his athletic testing.  Previously assumed to be a lock for a top three pick, he now faces falling to the back end of the lottery.

In the other corner, we have Ukranian Olexiy (Alex) Len, a true seven foot behemoth with a wingspan that could put a Golden Eagle to shame.  Scouts are always talking about his athletic profile, his quick feet, and his ability to cover ground in the paint.  He is an athletic big man auditioning for a league where athletic big men are more desirable than Anne Hathaway in black leather.

It seems it should be a run away in favor of Len, until you take into account one simple measure:  Can the guy play basketball?  Does the guy have a skill he can hang his hat on in the NBA?

Muhammed can play.   If you normalize the NCAA numbers to take into account pace and playing time, Shabazz rises, ranking as the second most prolific scoring small forward in the country, and the fourth highest scoring forward overall.  He trails only one wing as an offensive rebounder,  and does it all while almost never turning the ball over or fouling.   Muhammed can shoot, attack the rim, post up, draw fouls.   If you need to put some scoring punch on the floor, Muhammed has all the tools, strength, and relentless attacking focus to make him anything from a great second or third option to an explosive scoring sixth man.

Alex Len?  There’s nothing there.  Blocked Shots? He’s 8th among center prospects – but he actually fouls more often than he blocks shots.  Compare that to Noel’s 5.4 blocks per 3.2 fouls or Jeff Withey’s 4.9 per 2.6.   Not good.  You want scoring?  His true shooting % is in the bottom half of centers – as are his raw scoring numbers.  In fact, he’s a middling post option and only two centers in this draft drew fewer free throws per field goal attempt as Len managed.  How about rebounding, the skill that most transfers from college to the pros?   No luck, he’s fifth from the bottom among centers.  So right now, Len is an athletic, seven-foot behemoth who cannot score, cannot draw fouls, cannot rebound, and fouls anything that moves.  To round it off, he’s in the bottom half of centers in assists, is dead last in steals, and despite touching the ball infrequently is only middle of the pack in turnovers.

However, you can take all those numbers and say “He’s only 19!”  It’s true.  He won’t turn twenty for another two weeks.  But . . . already his body is breaking under the strain of being over seven feet tall.   His ankle has a stress fracture he is re-habbing right now.  The previous season he had issues with his other ankle that limited him.  Ironically, he’s being compared to Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a player who managed 179 out of a possible 328 games his first four seasons – due to ankle and foot injuries!  Imagine what will happen when he fills out?  When he’s got a man’s weight on those feet?  I can’t take another player fighting through injuries – especially a player that desperately needs minutes and time to even hope to become a contributor.  Can you?

This is no contenst.  I’m taking the guy who already is a basketball player.  I’m taking Shabazz.

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For all Sixth Pick Tournament Matchups and the Bracket, click here.


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