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Ukrainian Len recalls move from gymnastics to basketball

Alex Len doesn't look much like a gymnast these days. There aren't many 7-foot-1 gymnasts, after all.

But he said his work in gymnastics as a youngster is a big reason he is so agile for a big man in basketball. The big Ukrainian center, who just turned 20, was the fifth overall pick in the NBA draft, with the new regime running the basketball side of the Phoenix Suns banking on Len's upside after his inconsistent two seasons at Maryland.

Len and the Suns' other first-round pick, 18-year-old guard Archie Goodwin, were introduced at a news conference in Phoenix on Friday.

Len said he was in gymnastics from age 8 to 11. According to his bio in the NBA draft media guide, he chose the sport because he liked Jackie Chan movies.

"My high school (basketball) coach saw me in the gymnastic gym and he took me to the basketball gym and gave me the ball and said 'Shoot it,'" Len said. "I shot it and made it and he said 'You belong here.'"

He grew and grew and by the time he was 17 years old, Len was on the Ukraine Under-18 team. That's when Ryan McDonough, now the Suns general manager, got his first look at him.

McDonough said he was immediately impressed with the way the Ukrainian defended the rim and rebounded. He was raw but full of potential.

Len found his way to Maryland, where he had some big games against major competition. He dominated Kentucky's Nerlens Noel early last season, scoring a career-high 23 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and blocking four shots. But overall, his numbers with the Terrapins were not overwhelming. As a sophomore last season, he averaged 11.9 points and 7.8 rebounds while putting up a little over eight shots per game.

He did not make the All-ACC first, second or third teams. Eight weeks ago, he underwent surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot. That prevented him from working out for NBA teams, but still he was considered a sure thing as one of the top picks in the draft.

Cleveland reportedly strongly considered him for the No. 1 pick, but when the Cavaliers chose Anthony Bennett, it triggered a chain reaction that saw Len still available when Phoenix made the fifth pick overall.

When he appeared at draft headquarters in Brooklyn on Thursday night, he wore a suit jacket lined with the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

"It's a huge moment for me," Len said. "It's a great accomplishment. I've been dreaming about it since I was young. It's also a big moment in my life for my family and also for my country. There's not a lot of players from my country who played in the NBA."

Certainly no player from Ukraine has been drafted so high.

The Suns, coming off the second-worst season in franchise history, went even younger with their second pick in Thursday's first round, tabbing the young Goodwin after he played one season with Kentucky.

Phoenix traded up a notch from No. 30 to 29, with Golden State exchanging the picks and in a salary dump included guard Malcolm Lee as part of the deal.

McDonough said the Suns badly wanted Goodwin and weren't sure he would be available if the trade wasn't made. Goodwin worked out twice in Phoenix.

Goodwin, envisioned as a point guard by the Suns, was accompanied by his mother, stepfather, aunt and uncle at Friday's news conference. A touted high school player out of suburban Little Rock, Ark., he struggled with his shooting at Kentucky.

"I will say right now my strength will be really attacking the rim, making plays for myself and others, being aggressive and confident, and my competitive edge really sets me apart," Goodwin said. "But I have a lot of room to grow. I'm only 18. I can get a lot stronger, I can get a lot more consistent in shooting, get my dribbling better and getting a high IQ for the game."