Terps excited to get 7-foot-1 freshman Len into the mix

COLLEGE PARK — Alex Len slowed as he approached the foul line and did a little hop.

Then the 7-footer did a cartwheel, steadied himself, and caught a lob pass from a teammate that he rammed home for a dunk.

The theatrics at Maryland Madness revealed something about Len, the untested but promising center who is set to make his regular-season debut Wednesday night against Albany for a Maryland team eager for the size and depth he can provide.

Len, who has been practicing with the team, missed the first 10 games of the season as a penalty for having previously signed with a club overseas.

The center from Antratsit, Ukraine, has barely been seen by Maryland fans. He appeared in an exhibition game against Northwood on Nov. 4 in which he had four points and six rebounds in 16 minutes. Before that, Len scrimmaged with the Terps during Maryland Madness, the preseason pep rally in which players are introduced to fans.

It was then that Len, followed by a spotlight in the darkened Comcast Center, launched into his cartwheel and dunk — a move that elicited applause and laughter from fans and his teammates on the bench.

The cartwheel forecasts little about how Len will fare in games. But it did provide a window into the player's athleticism and affection for the game. He is said by coaches and teammates to be mobile, with a soft shooting touch and a feel for blocking shots.

It is those athletic talents — plus his 7-foot-1 frame — that make him so intriguing.

Len "can shoot the ball, can dribble it, can pass it," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said Tuesday. "For his size, he's very skilled."

Len may not start for the Terps immediately. But he is expected to be a starter soon.

In fact, Turgeon said he may eventually run the offense through Len and sophomore guard Terrell Stoglin, giving the Terps a high-low presence. Ashton Pankey is expected to move from center to power forward once Len is established in the lineup.

Len's return — along with that of point guard Pe'Shon Howard — gives the Terps (7-3) the depth and inside presence to play the aggressive defense that Turgeon covets.

"We've been trying to pressure more in practice," the coach said.

Howard returned last week from a broken foot and is expected to start against Albany (7-5) of the America East Conference.

Before getting Howard and Len available, Maryland had only seven team members originally recruited as scholarship players.

Howard and the other Terps have seen Len for weeks during the team's closed practices. They can't help but be excited.

"He can pass, he has a nice shot. And, of course, he's 7-1," fellow center Berend Weijs said recently.

"I can't really put into words the difference he'll make," Howard said after Maryland beat Radford Friday night for its fourth straight win. "I think you will all be impressed by him."

The Terps are in the midst of a six-game nonconference homestand. Competition accelerates when the team opens its Atlantic Coast Conference schedule with a game at North Carolina State on Jan. 8.

In the meantime, Turgeon seems to be trying to temper fans' early expectations for Len. The coach said in a preaseason interview that Len is "one of those guys [that] at the end of the year I think you'll look and say he's our most improved player."

Len, whose English Turgeon said is improving, has not yet been made available for interviews.

Turgeon seemed to want to remind the media Tuesday that Len is still raw.

"He'll be like any freshman," the coach said. "Some games he's going to be better than others."

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sunjeffbarker

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