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The Noah Vonleh Enigma: What Will Come Of The Blazers' Youngster?

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The Trail Blazers are headed for a rebuild - and in Noah Vonleh, they have the ultimate upside guy to build with.

Noah Vonleh still has a lot of learning to do.
Noah Vonleh still has a lot of learning to do.
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Not to be too hard on ourselves since hindsight is 20/20 and all, but we really should have seen this rebuild thing coming. It was obvious long before LaMarcus Aldridge stood in front of a podium last week holding a Spurs jersey, and long before the rest of the Trail Blazers' core scattered to New York and Dallas in free agency earlier in July. No - the moment Neil Olshey pulled the trigger on trading Nicolas Batum to Charlotte on June 24, there should have been no doubt.

Think about it. You don't make that trade without knowing full well you're in for a long rebuild. In Batum, Olshey gave away the ultimate "stability guy." Even in a down year, you still knew what you were getting with Batum - he was a versatile, high-energy player, just entering the prime of his career at 26, equally skilled on the offensive and defensive ends and always willing to do whatever the team needed. He was exactly the kind of dependable player you wanted starting for your playoff team. In exchange for Batum, Olshey got Noah Vonleh - a 19-year-old kid who followed up a lot of predraft hype with a lackluster rookie season. In other words, the ultimate "project guy." Yeah - from that moment on, the plan should have looked mighty clear.

And while that plan is difficult to stomach, you could definitely make the case that Olshey deserves praise for the way he's begun the rebuilding process. Most projects like this begin slowly and painfully - consider the Sixers shipping out an All-Star in Jrue Holiday for a pile of draft picks in 2013, or the Celtics doing more or less the same thing with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Those rebuilds had to start slow because they began completely from scratch, with little talent on the roster; with the Blazers, that's not the case. They've got some interesting pieces to begin building with right now.

And if you ask me, Vonleh's the most interesting of all of them.

Note that I didn't say "best" - I said "most interesting." Vonleh is a curious case because we don't know yet whether he's actually good. He's an incomplete project, but a polarizing player even now -  he's a 19-year-old kid who's already been around long enough to convince one NBA team to give up on him and another to give away a seven-year starter for him.

This is what gets me about Vonleh. What gives? Why did the Hornets, a 33-win team in sore need of another young piece to build around, give up on the kid so soon? And why did the Blazers, who've won 54 and 51 games the last two years, agree so quickly to take him in? What happened here - did someone guess wrong? Is either Olshey or the Blazers' old friend Rich Cho going to look really silly in four years?

To understand Vonleh's journey, you have to start with his time at Indiana, where the young power forward quickly became known as one of the most dazzling physical specimens in the nation. His combination of length and explosiveness made him a lethal scorer both in the low post and the mid-range; he even shot 48.5 percent from 3-point range to boot. (Small sample size, only a little over 1 attempt per game, but still.) DraftExpress guru Derek Bodner noted in June 2014, the week before the draft, that Vonleh was one of the best bigs in the incoming class due to his post-up scoring ability and his overall efficiency - he averaged 1.32 points per possession he used. (That's good.) Bodner had Vonleh projected to go higher in that draft than any other power forward, a group that included Aaron Gordon and Julius Randle. As it turns out, Vonleh slipped in that final week, ultimately leaving Gordon to go No. 4 and Randle, No. 7. Vonleh went ninth to Charlotte.

Once Vonleh got to the Queen City, the result was an absolute bloodbath.



That's Vonleh's shot chart from his rookie year with the Hornets, and good lord, is it hideous. The bigger the dot, the more shots he took from a given location; the darker blue, the more he missed those shots. Look at those big fat blueberries right around the rim.

To put it numerically:

  • Vonleh shot 39.5 percent last year. He was just 31.6 percent on attempts from between 3 and 10 feet. From less than 3 feet, he was better, but still awful - 47.1 percent. These are layups we're talking about. He was less than a coin flip to make a layup.
  • The Hornets averaged 92.7 points per 100 possessions during Vonleh's time on the floor. To put that in perspective: No team has averaged 92.7 or less for a full season in the last decade. The last team under 93 was the 2002-03 Nuggets at 92.2. Even the Sixers this past year, who were trying to stink, averaged 95.5. Simply put, the Hornets with Vonleh in the lineup were one of the worst offensive teams in history.

Now. Having said all of this, remember that Vonleh last season was only 19 years old! He played his high school ball in relative obscurity up in New Hampshire, got in 30 games of college experience at Indiana and was thrust into the pro game while barely old enough to vote. In Charlotte, he parachuted into a situation where expectations were high (the Hornets were a playoff team the season before) and there wasn't much time to stop and teach the new kid the fundamentals. Vonleh was an afterthought for much of the season, watching from the bench as Al Jefferson, Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo led the big man corps in the team's (ultimately unsuccessful) playoff chase.

There is absolutely still time for Vonleh to figure it out. What he needs is time, patience and a coach who's willing to work with him on correcting some bad habits.

What habits, you ask? Let's go to the tape.

This play starts simply enough - Vonleh, a super-active screener by nature, sets one at the top of the key for his teammate Troy Daniels. Vonleh's man, the Rockets' Josh Smith, begins cutting right to switch onto Daniels, not realizing that Daniels' man Jason Terry has slipped the screen and stayed with Daniels the whole time. Smith tries to recover back to Vonleh, but not before Vonleh is left all alone at the top of the key with plenty of space to create.

Fortunately for Smith and the Rockets, the little defensive slip-up amounts to nothing as Vonleh drives and fails to score. The ball goes out of bounds, and Houston takes over.

Now wait. Back up.



Before Smith is able to recover to his man, this is the situation. Vonleh is all alone at the top of the key, wide open. He has all the space in the world. He has plenty of options. He can just shoot the ball right there (remember, he's got a great 3-point stroke), he can take a couple dribbles in and shoot from the elbow or he can drive and kick to a teammate. All of the above give him a great chance at a bucket or assist. Maddeningly, though, he instead chooses to drive the lane, where, not only is Smith quickly backtracking to catch up with him, but Terrence Jones is also waiting at the rim to eat him for lunch. The result is, instead of getting an open jump shot, he gets flat-out rejected by Jones at the rim.

This, to me, reads like a rookie mistake. It smacks of Vonleh, who's 19 years old and has spent his entire life beating up on inferior competition, running into (quite literally) an NBA defense for the first time. He's used to being the biggest and fastest guy on the floor at all times, without question; there weren't a lot of Josh Smiths or Terrence Joneses playing high school ball in New Hampshire. Now, he's got to tweak his approach.

Here's another example from the same game, only instead of creating from the top of the key this time, Vonleh gets the ball in the post. Again, he's got a golden opportunity to score, but this time he runs into a high-flying Clint Capela at the rim, and he's denied.

Except, look here:



Capela never should have been a problem for Vonleh on this possession. This was a fantastic scoring chance for Vonleh because he was actually matched up with Pablo Prigioni, a smaller player who got switched onto Vonleh when he set a screen for Brian Roberts. This should have been no sweat - it's a 6-foot-10 power forward trying to finish in a one-on-one situation against a 6-foot-3 guard. A quick jump hook or a fadeaway jumper over him, and it's an easy two points. Instead, Vonleh decides to get fancy, going around Prigioni and trying to score at the rim with Capela challenging him.

Does Vonleh not have that jump hook in his repertoire? Does he sorta have it but not totally trust it? Or did he actually think driving to the rim and angling for a layup against the super-athletic 6-foot-10 Capela was a good idea? These are questions that need to be asked. For whatever reason, it didn't seem like anyone in Charlotte bothered to ask last year. Instead, Steve Clifford just relegated Vonleh to the end of the bench for much of the year, and his issues went unaddressed.

For the heck of it, let's peek at one last clip:

This is a great play by Kemba Walker, using a screen from Jason Maxiell to artfully probe his way into the paint and get a good look from the elbow. He can launch a floater here if he wants, but instead he dishes to an open Vonleh on the right side, just a couple feet beyond the block. Vonleh's man, the Raptors' Patrick Patterson, has drifted into the paint to provide weakside help against Walker. Vonleh is, again, fairly open.



As you can clearly see from this shot, Vonleh has a wide-open look at an 8-foot jumper. This is the bread and butter of the NBA power forward. Ask an Aldridge or a Jefferson and they'll tell you with no hesitation - don't overthink this one. Shoot the ball.

Instead, Vonleh does his thing, driving aimlessly into the paint against a horde of waiting defenders. The spin move is pretty snazzy, but then the ball goes flying, and if you blink, you miss Greivis Vasquez running off with it.

NBA rookies talk all the time about the adjustment period that comes when they first arrive in the league. It takes some time to get acquainted with the speed of the game and the size of the players all around them, they'll tell you.

Vonleh's play, to me, looks like that of a guy who's still not done adjusting yet. And I guess that's not surprising - after all, Vonleh is still just a kid, he's played only 259 minutes of professional basketball in his life and he's still got a lot to learn.

It doesn't seem like he learned much during his brief stint in Charlotte. You watch a little film of him from November (there isn't much), a little from April and he still looks like the same player. He wasn't given much of an opportunity to develop with the Hornets, and it shows.

That said, I'd hate to be that guy who judged a player solely based on a limited glimpse of the way he performed at age 19. Here's a bold statement - we're all knuckleheads when we're 19. This is a fact of life. I know I was one. My college sophomore self went through five takeout pizzas and seven 2-liter Pepsis a week, stayed up 'til 3 a.m. for no reason and only went to the library when I wanted to rent a movie. I had no idea how to be a responsible human being, let alone thrive in a high-profile job with a $2 million paycheck and expectations to match. It would be unreasonable to expect perfection from Vonleh now. Patience is a virtue.

Fortunately, it appears that Vonleh is now in a place where that patience can be afforded to him. That's the beauty of this whole rebuild thing. With four of the Blazers' five starters gone and a new, greener core group just beginning to crystallize, there's plenty of time for Vonleh and the other young talents on the roster to come around. Some of that will happen naturally with time. Vonleh won't be 19 forever. It will also come about through coaching. The onus is now on Terry Stotts to mold the young talent at his disposal, Vonleh especially.

Four years from now, what will we think of Batum for Vonleh? Will the deal be remembered as a classic win-win for both sides, or a stinkbomb dropped by one misguided GM? At the moment, the question hangs in the balance, but soon, Noah Vonleh will have the power to answer it one way or the other.