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MIAMI – In late February, as the Suns prepared for their first game after the All-Star break, Alex Len finished his work during the morning shoot-around in Chicago and took a seat at the United Center.

With the Suns out of playoff contention, management had decided to evaluate Phoenix’s youth, a move that put Len into the starting five in place of veteran center Tyson Chandler. Len – a restricted free agent at season’s end – didn’t need to be told what was at stake.

“Huge,” the 7-foot-1 center, the fifth overall pick of the 2013 NBA draft, said that morning. “It’s my contract year, so it’s a huge stretch. I just have to show everybody I can be a starting center in this league. I got an opportunity, I just have to prove it.”

Nearly a month later, as the Suns visit Miami on Tuesday, Len continues to work toward that goal. It hasn’t been easy. Over 11 games, the fourth-year center has played 25-plus minutes only three times. A lingering hip issue and an upstart teammate who had spent most of the first half cheering from the bench are not helping his cause.

A few weeks ago, during his weekly radio show, Earl Watson was asked about Len’s progress. The Suns’ second-year coach started talking about opportunity and how it seldom comes when people expect and the importance of being ready at all times. “And to me,” Watson concluded, “the best definition of being ready has been Alan Williams.”

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Along with rookie point guard Tyler Ulis, Williams has thrived during this evaluation stretch, taking minutes from Len at center. Since the All-Star break, the 6-8 Williams – also approaching restricted free agency — has averaged 13.5 points and 9.8 rebounds, shooting 53.3 percent from the field. Although Len has started every game in which he’s been healthy, Watson often has turned to Williams in crunch time.

“Big Al’s just been playing great,” Watson said. “He’s earned those minutes.”

As a result, Len is playing just a minute more on average than he did before the All-Star break. His per-game production has been nearly identical – 7.5 points before the break and 7.5 after; 6.4 rebounds before the break, 6.5 after. (Len’s per-36 minute overall numbers of 13.7 points and 11.7 rebounds remain strong.)

The hip issue was bothersome. Nothing new, but something Len had battled all season. He first hurt it against New Orleans before Christmas. Then he did it again in practice before the team left for Mexico City and again two weeks ago against the Lakers.

“Three different times in the same spot,” said Len, who needed two games to recover.

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Since his return, Len has worked on developing a new wrinkle to his game – the corner 3-point shot. This is how the NBA is going, Watson said. Look at Minnesota 7-footer Karl-Anthony Towns (234 3-point attempts this season). Look at Philadelphia 7-footer Joel Embiid (98 before suffering a season-ending knee injury). Today’s centers stretch the court, something Len did growing up, but got away from during his college years at Maryland.

“Big guys in this league, either you develop and shoot the 3 or you become a great rebounder,” Watson said. “If you can dominate the boards like Tyson did, it kind of makes it hard for a team to go small. But (overall) it’s a different game.”

A 71-percent career free-throw shooter, Len has a decent shooting touch, but he admits, it feels “weird” looking for shots on the perimeter when he’s used to operating in the paint. Entering Sunday’s game in Detroit, Len had attempted just 16 3-pointers in 253 career games. He had made three.

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“Alex Len is a capable corner 3-point shooter,” Watson said, “he just has to get comfortable shooting it and he has to practice it. That’s where the confidence will come from.”

On Phoenix’s first possession Sunday, Ulis penetrated right and fired a pass to Len in the opposite corner. The big man didn’t hesitate, firing and swishing a 3, perhaps a key moment in Len’s development, perhaps a sign of things to come.

Free throw

Guards Devin Booker (ankle), Ronnie Price (leg) and Leandro Barbosa (illness) all missed Sunday’s loss at Detroit, leaving the Suns with just eight available players. When asked about their conditions after the game, all three suggested they wouldn’t miss significant time. The Suns list them questionable for Tuesday’s contest against the Heat.

Contact Doug Haller at 602-444-4949 or at [email protected]. Follow him at Twitter.com/DougHaller.


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Tuesday’s game

Suns at Heat

When: 4:30 p.m.

Where: American Airlines Arena, Miami.

TV/radio: FSAZ/KTAR 98.7.

Miami: On Jan. 13, the injury-plagued Heat lost for the 10th time in 11 games, falling to 11-30. Since then, they’ve been among the NBA’s hottest teams. Even after Sunday’s home loss to Portland, Miami has gone 23-6 to position itself in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt. Center Hassan Whiteside is the Eastern Conference Player of the Week after averaging 20 points and 13.7 rebounds. He has posted double-doubles in a franchise-record 12 games. Guard Goran Dragic averages 20 points and 6.3 assists. Guard Dion Waiters (15.8 ppg) is out with an ankle injury.