Noah Vonleh initially generated a lot of buzz when the Portland Trail Blazers acquired him from the Charlotte Hornets back in May. One year removed from being the ninth overall pick in arguably the deepest draft of the last decade, why shouldn’t he have? At 20 years old with plenty of upside, he embodies the Trail Blazers’ new youth movement, and gives us all something extra to look forward to in the season of change to come.
That early buzz carried through to the Las Vegas Summer League in July, where, to the delight of the Portland masses, Vonleh noticeably excelled, earning All-NBA Summer League second team honors, despite missing time with an ankle injury. Some even projected him as a starter based on his performance and position of prominence on a rebuilding team. Blazer fans were justifiably excited.
I hesitate to use the past tense there, because, in truth, very little has changed since then. Many are still thrilled about Vonleh in their own capacity, if only less vocally after enduring the August doldrums. Without much going on between late-July and late-September, there are no new highlights to whet the appetite for conversation. Eager discourse has been largely replaced by anxious waiting, as training camp approaches.
Yet, somewhere in the post-Summer League stupor of the last few months, Vonleh’s name disappeared almost entirely from even the fluffiest headlines. This is somewhat unusual for someone who is supposed to be a cornerstone of the next Portland paradigm; especially coming off of a memorable performance. So what happened? Where have the abiding whispers gone without him?
Of the players that have piqued fan interest in recent weeks, enthusiasm seems to be growing for Meyers Leonard. On the August 27 Lowe Post podcast, Trail Blazers GM Neil Olshey casually noted that Leonard may pair well with cemented starter Al-Farouq Aminu, leading listeners to extrapolate potential starter status for Leonard as well. Since Leonard and Vonleh should both earn the bulk of their minutes at power forward, a larger role for Leonard could mean a smaller role for Vonleh by extension; potentially accounting for the stagnating silence at the water cooler with respect to Vonleh.
Curiously, as Vonleh spends more time in the background, the complexities of what he brings to the table are conversationally stripped down to a few primary features. He can shoot well, he can rebound well, and he is mobile for a big man. This condensed version of his game is mostly a reflection of what his statistics bear out, since there is a paucity of game tape to draw from. In 25 games last season, he shot 38.5% from deep and pulled in 12.0 rebounds per 36 minutes. These numbers support the image we have conceived of him, but do not advance it.
It is no wonder, then, that Vonleh is often lumped into the "shooting big man" category with Leonard. Their overlapping skills happen to be the ones that Vonleh is most known for in the stat sheet. However, there is so much more to Vonleh’s offensive game than we give him credit for at a cursory glance. His relatively advanced and sometimes overlooked inside game distinguishes him from Leonard. Vonleh is more than a "spare tire" stretch four.
First and foremost among the abilities that separate Vonleh is his ball handling proficiency. Coming out of Indiana, he was lauded for his guard-like maneuverability. He can drive and attack or he can put the ball on the floor and back his opponent down with reasonable success. We did not get to see much of this at Summer League because he was able to thrive by simply muscling smaller players at the rim or shooting open threes, but it is a big part of why his ceiling is expected to be so high.
Increasing the value of Vonleh’s dribbling capability is his talent for finishing with either hand. After backing an opponent down, he can turn to his left just as well as his right, making him much more difficult to guard. Both he and Leonard have an affinity for the hook shot, but where Leonard primarily relies on length to finish over opponents with his dominant hand, Vonleh has built more variety into his back-to-the-basket game out of necessity. He is not the most explosive player, but he has the touch and motility to play below the rim.
Such aptitude is accommodated by Vonleh’s ever-improving footwork, something Leonard is slowly developing with the help of Chris Kaman. The fun here is that Vonleh is equipped to deal with large defenders anywhere on the court. So not only can he beat less mobile bigs off the dribble if he faces up from mid-range, he can generally out-maneuver them in the low post, though he still struggles with the double team. It will be interesting to see what comes if Kaman takes him on as a new disciple; one that is already ahead of the low post learning curve.
This is all, of course, not to disparage Leonard, who plays a less aggressive brand of the inside outside game. He is the far more efficient player at this juncture. Yet, he is less comfortable putting the ball on the floor, creating his own scoring opportunities around the rim, or spinning over either shoulder. That is where Vonleh fundamentally differs. So while both of them are correctly considered mobile big men with inordinate range, Vonleh is not exactly a "Leonard-lite."
Which begs the question: Can their skills be utilized simultaneously? Quite probably. Imagine the room Vonleh would have to work with if Leonard were able to pull opposing centers out of the paint. Opponents cannot usually check Leonard with an undersized man, so there would be times where their post anchor would be forced to defend in space while Vonleh has a more open lane to the hoop. This sort of unorthodox tandem could add to Vonleh’s playing time even if Leonard does end up with the lion’s share of the minutes.
Either way, Vonleh brings enough to the table to merit a renewed sense of wonder. He is perhaps Portland’s most intriguing newcomer. How much he will play and in what context is not for us to know just yet, as I am sure Terry Stotts is uncertain himself, but we are not far from seeing him and others in action. Although the redundancy of having a pseudo-Leonard on the offensive end would not necessarily be a bad thing, Vonleh is much more than that.