What is Noah Vonleh capable of?


As we stand upon the soon to be flurry of free agency activity, let’s take a moment to look at what the Portland Trail Blazers actually have as of now. David just recently looked at the acquisition of Mason Plumlee (which, for the record, I agree was a good move). The other young new piece that I am excited to look into is Noah Vonleh, the 19 year-old big man that the Trail Blazers acquired from the Charlotte Hornets in the trade that sent Nicolas Batum packing.

Since he played in Charlotte, I admittedly cannot say that I have watched a lot of film on Vonleh. He was sidelined by a sports hernia surgery at the beginning of the season, which didn’t help, as the subsequent time off for recovery torpedoed much of his season. He only ended up appearing in 25 games. On a side note, does a promising lottery pick’s rookie season getting off to a rocky start due to injury remind you of anyone? (*Cough* C.J. McCollum *Cough*).

We can start by looking at Vonleh’s college stats, when he appeared in 30 games for Indiana. Those stats are quite good – 11.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks in 26 minutes per game, all while shooting 53% on two-pointers and 48.5% on three-pointers. That three-point shooting percentage was on more than one attempt per game, so making threes was not a rare occurrence for him.

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Let’s face it – the stats should be good enough to justify being taken ninth overall. Of particular note are the gaudy rebounding numbers, and the potential ability to shoot threes. Of course, the normal caveats apply here. The competition in college is a far cry from the NBA, although on the flip side, the Big 10 is not some joke of a conference. It’s also worth noting that the three-point line is closer in college.

While size will always matter in the NBA, the Warriors’ recent championship run showed the value of also having a lineup full of shooters (Andrew Bogut’s benching shows how extreme this issue can be). NBA defenses are becoming so smart and sophisticated that the new name of the game is spacing. And, unsurprisingly, spacing is generated by having shooters, or by having players that are at least a threat to shoot.

Since Vonleh played such limited minutes, he only shot 13 threes last season, but he made five of them (38.5%). While this is such a small sample size, we can’t definitively say “He can definitely shoot threes,” but again, we can certainly say he appears to have the potential to do so. Looking at the Warriors’ example, the luxury of having bigs who can shoot from deep can be an incredibly valuable weapon.

Since it’s apparent that Vonleh had a rocky rookie season overall, I am most interested in how he performed in his best games. These games can offer us a window into what he is can be capable of. According to Game Score, Vonleh’s best three games were all on the road, against the Detroit Pistons, the Toronto Raptors, and the Denver Nuggets. In these three games, Vonleh averaged 11.7 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks in 23 minutes per game (52.1% shooting overall and 40% from three).

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, a hard working individual on YouTube compiled a highlight reel of Vonleh’s best performance of the season, which was definitely the April 12th game against the Pistons. It must be pointed out that Charlotte lost this game in a bad blowout, so much of his production came in garbage time.

After watching the video a couple of times, there were a few key takeaways I think are worth mentioning. The first is that Vonleh looked extremely comfortable “diving” to the hoop (often off a pick and roll or similar action). Once there, he was able to finish with contact a couple times, draw some fouls, and overall navigate the traffic in the lane fairly well.

Something he flashed on these dives to the rim, as well as on the first play of the video, was an ability to put the ball on the floor. This can be difficult for bigs, especially in traffic, but Vonleh seemed especially comfortable with a gather dribble, which can be a crucial tool when navigating the aforementioned crowded lanes.

Finally, Vonleh drilled a three from straight on. The defense let him shoot it completely uncontested, but that’s not the important part. The important part is that he made it, and looked confident while doing so, which is what will eventually start forcing defenders to play him closer. This chain of events is then what finally creates the end product of more space for an offense to operate.

Vonleh is just 19. He only played one year in college, and his rookie season was hampered by injury. There is no way to tell what he will become, but we can certainly get an idea of what he might be capable of. Adjusting to the NBA is flat-out hard, and with the glimpses of what he has shown, I am excited to see how he develops with the Trail Blazers.

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