When Alex Len committed to play for Maryland, his mother, Juliya, presented Terrapins coach Mark Turgeon with a tiny turtle figurine and asked him to take care of her son. Less than two years later, Turgeon helped Len grow from a 7-foot-1 boy to a man and a probable NBA lottery pick.
In roughly 20 months in College Park, Len gained 30 pounds, learned English and solidified his future as a professional basketball player. On Tuesday, Len made it official, declaring that he will leave Maryland and enter his name in the NBA Draft.
"My family and I have been thinking about it for some time now," Len said. "Me and coach Turgeon, we came to the decision and we think that it is going to be a great decision for me and my career."
Between his skittish freshman year and his sophomore season, Len took giant steps toward his goal to play professionally. This season he averaged 11.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game. His performances were uneven, but at his best, Len showed he has the skills to thrive in the NBA. He played brilliantly in a season-opening loss to Kentucky (23 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks) and dominated Duke All-American Mason Plumlee as Maryland upset then-No. 2 Duke in February.
"I don't think I have ever been around a player who has progressed as much as Alex has as quickly," Turgeon said.
Turgeon beamed Tuesday, talking with pride about the development of Len and his expectation that he would enhance his stock once teams get a chance to see him work out. There's no denying his extraordinary skill set. Turgeon said one of Len's assets -- his ability to shoot from the outside -- will be a pleasant surprise to those evaluating him leading up to the June 27 draft.
"I talked to a couple NBA guys yesterday that had really high picks and I told them, 'Don't mess up,' " Turgeon said. "I think he can be the No. 1 pick. They're talking about the other guy [Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel] being No. 1, and you guys saw the same game I saw when we played them earlier in the year. This kid's going to be special."
An example of Len's growth on defense came late this season as he blocked a combined 11 shots in the Terps' final two games in the NIT, a win at Alabama and a loss to Iowa in the semifinals.
"We finished [11th] in the country in field goal percentage defense for one reason -- it was this guy right here," Turgeon said. "The Iowa game, we would have lost by 20 if he wasn't altering shots, blocking shots."
Len leaves Maryland bearing little resemblance to the player who arrived in the summer of 2011. His mother, no doubt, is happy she sent her son to College Park.
"She said, 'I am giving Alex to you as a baby, when he leaves here I want him to be a man,'?" Turgeon said. "He has grown up a lot."