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Will The Trail Blazers See A New And Improved Noah Vonleh In 2016-17?

Noah Vonleh started 56 games for Portland last season, but was little more than a talking point for most Trail Blazers fans. What kind of improvement has he shown so far this preseason?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

I feel bad for Noah Vonleh. I really do.

For the better part of the last 12 months, it seems like most people who talk and write about the Blazers have treated Vonleh less like a human being than a rhetorical device, used to represent non-competitive basketball. I include myself in this group, I'm sad to admit. With most of us who talk Blazers, there's very little discussion of Vonleh beyond the standard exclamation of "Noah Vonleh started 56 games last year!" as a crude way of saying "This team wasn't really trying hard until March!"

While that statement isn't technically untrue, it's still kind of unsophisticated. It's a broad idea that mischaracterizes the competitive spirit with which every Blazer played last season, Vonleh included. It says nothing specific about Vonleh as a player or as a person. It's just sorta a hand-wavy way of saying that Vonleh last year was, y'know, bad.

Which he was. Quantifiably. Vonleh's efficiency was last season was scary low in just about every situation you can name, and the Blazers' lineup was clearly weaker with him on the floor compared to another starting forward like Moe Harkless. Having said that, Vonleh's also a hard working player who's given his best effort and energy level throughout his time in Portland, and oh by the way, he was still only 20 years old last year. Excuse me while I go thank my lucky stars there were no annoying bloggers scrutinizing my every move when I was 20. I doubt it'd have been fun.

Vonleh might not be an accomplished NBA player yet, but he's still barely old enough to legally drink today, and he's got 1,433 career minutes to his name. I know it feels like we've been kicking the Vonleh discussion topic around forever, but he still might be too young for us to judge him fully.

Then again, he can't stay "too young" forever. Eventually, we'll reach a decision point, and the Blazers (or another NBA team) will have to decide whether Vonleh is worth paying to be an NBA player any longer. It might not be too much longer before, one way or the other, that time comes.

This is a big year for Vonleh. It's the last guaranteed year on his contract, with the Blazers holding a team option to retain him through 2017-18. If the youngster is going to prove he's worthy of sticking in the NBA, this is the season he'll have to do it. A quick look around the league reveals that several of his classmates in the 2014 draft lottery - think Marcus Smart, Zach Levine and Elfrid Payton - have already proven themselves as solid NBA players. Is this the year Vonleh does the same?

Obviously, Vonleh didn't start the season off on the right foot for proving his NBA mettle. We found out in camp two weeks ago that he was hurt - he'd undergone a procedure in August to remove a bone fragment from his thigh, and he wasn't available for the start of the preseason. Not good news for a guy who needed to fight in October to prove himself worthy of minutes. Since then, however, Vonleh has recovered nicely, and his preseason results have shown it.

Noah Vonleh, 2016-17 preseason: 8.3 points, 6.6 rebounds per game in 15 minutes per game; 11-for-16 shooting (68.8 percent); Blazers plus-20 with him on the floor

This is good. It's only preseason, of course, so take it with a grain of salt - but it's good. It shows that Vonleh is taking the limited opportunities offered to him, using them efficiently and playing within himself. If he's going to have a productive year, this is what it'll have to be. It's a year of baby steps. He's not going to get tons of minutes or many plays run for him, barring something really weird happening, so he'll just have to look for little ways here and there to make himself useful.

So far this October, I'd say that's exactly what he's done.

(First of all, apologies for the poor video quality on a couple of these - we're still working out some kinks on the video side at BE. It's our preseason too. I made the Lakers clips myself, and they're admittedly terrible. Bear with me.)

What you see above, albeit blurrily, is Vonleh sneaking into the action by lurking away from the ball and waiting for an opportunity. Essentially, he scores here by doing what most Trail Blazers players do to get their points - he waits for one of the Blazers' two star guards to attack and create a seam in the defense, then goes to work with the space they open up.

In this case, it's CJ McCollum making it happen for Vonleh, blowing by the Lakers' D'Angelo Russell and getting into the paint with ease. McCollum is always a threat to knock down a floater in the lane unless you put a body on him, so while Vonleh is waiting along the baseline, his man Luol Deng starts to cheat away from him and close off McCollum's driving lane. Deng cheats maybe a step too far, and McCollum finds Vonleh cutting to the rim for a dunk.

This reminds me of the kind of stuff the Clippers run when they're trying to get DeAndre Jordan - another big man with a limited offensive skill set - going. Jordan doesn't always get plays called for him in the traditional sense (i.e., running pick-and-rolls where he's the roll man), but does get to feast on the lanes that open up when Chris Paul and Blake Griffin work their magic. Watch the Clippers run their offense and you'll be amazed at how many times it happens - CP3 and Blake do their thing, the defense collapses into the paint, and DAJ creeps up from the baseline for an easy dunk. This is the kind of role Vonleh can play in Portland. He's not going to be the offensive focal point, but there are times when he can inject himself into the game and make plays. Mason Plumlee, Meyers Leonard and Ed Davis were all among the NBA's top 60 players in total pick-and-roll opportunities last year, per Synergy Sports; whenever Vonleh is paired with one of them this season, he can lurk and cherry-pick. It's an easy way to get efficient points.

It's a nice bonus that by setting up shop around the rim, Vonleh can make himself useful in other ways, too.

It's often said that when you're evaluating a college player's chances of making it in the pros, rebounding is the one thing that always translates. If you can rebound in the Big Ten, you can probably get it done at the NBA level too. Vonleh was very solid on the glass during his one year at Indiana, averaging 9 boards per game in 26.5 minutes, and he's shown that he can do OK at the pro level when given opportunities.

Put-back dunks are another area where Vonleh can make himself useful without necessarily needing plays run for him. Last year Vonleh got 56 opportunities for put-backs and turned them into 67 total points, per Synergy; this level of efficiency put him in the 77th percentile league-wide. It was one of the few areas offensively where he was consistently an above-average player. It looks like so far this fall, he's still got it.

In the blur seen above, McCollum shakes free of L.A.'s Julius Randle and gets a good look from 16 feet; angling for the rebound, Deng abandons Vonleh and instead focuses on boxing out Mason Plumlee. He does it well, but it's all for naught as Vonleh basically leaps over both of them to get the rebound and the slam.

For all the negativity that Vonleh stirs up, rebounding is one area where he's actually a solid NBA player. He snagged 14.1 percent of all available boards while on the floor last season, third-most on the Blazers. While he sometimes struggles interacting with other players at the pro level, such as when navigating a pick-and-roll or reading the floor to find open space on an off-ball cut, rebounding is something he can simply do in a vacuum. As long as he can use his length and hops to outwork opposing bigs on the glass, he can be productive. He's not the headiest or most tactically sound player in the world, but in these situations, he doesn't have to be - he's just athletic and opportunistic.

If Vonleh can just do little things like that, he's capable of being a decent bench guy in Portland. It's OK if he sticks to the basics. If he's feeling ambitious, though, he can graduate to being a legit post-up guy:


See, this is what I love about the fourth quarters of meaningless preseason games. When the outcome doesn't matter, you get to see teams goof around with playcalls they would never, ever make in a game that counted. This is a fine example - the Portland Trail Blazers, in the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball game, run a straight-up post play for Noah Vonleh.

And it works! Vonleh takes the entry pass from Grant Jerrett, takes a few steps to back down Suns rookie Marquese Chriss, gets into the paint and launches a soft jump hook up and in. Vonleh was a very good post player during his year with the Hoosiers, but he's basically never gotten a chance to show his moves at the pro level - top-notch NBA rim protectors have basically eaten him for lunch. It's nice, though, to see Vonleh building some confidence by getting reps against fellow inexperienced young players. Beating Chriss in the post isn't exactly the same as beating, say, Tyson Chandler, but it's a sign that he can still be lethal in the right matchup. Maybe, if he has enough success making plays like this in the preseason, he can build upon it and actually post up a bit this year.

The Blazers actually went to Vonleh in the post again a few times late in that Phoenix fourth quarter; he scored on Chriss again two minutes later, then another time 30 seconds after that. Finally, with the "game" on the "line" and just seconds left, he showed Chriss another wrinkle:


Oh, man, that's just nasty.

First off, Vonleh does a great job jockeying for position in the post with Chriss - even when he loses that battle, he doesn't lose, because he ends up creating a nice, wide-open space for himself to drain a 20-foot jumper from the wing. The fact that Vonleh makes the jumper here is encouraging, as it shows a little bit of unpredictability in his game. If he's a threat both inside and out, he'll be that much tougher to guard this season.

I know, I know - all Vonleh's done is show his stuff in two meaningless October games against the likes of Luol Deng and Marquese Chriss. There are absolutely no guarantees he'll be a versatile, efficient scorer like this once the real competition starts. I wouldn't dare try to convince you otherwise. But I do think that showing little flashes here and there is a nice way for Vonleh to start his 2016-17 campaign. No one's asking him to do everything this season, but if he can find one or two plus NBA skills and showcase them consistently, that would make the year a success for him. Right now he's dabbling, feeling his way around and looking for some moves that will work.

Even if he's successful, it might not matter. It's unclear if even an improved Vonleh will get minutes in a crowded Blazers frontcourt rotation that already has a lot of guys with highly specialized skills. Even if he keeps hitting jumpers, can he really do it better than Leonard? If he scores around the rim, can he possibly be as efficient as Ed Davis? Even if he improves defensively (where, by the way, he's already not bad), he can't ever be Festus Ezeli, can he?

I have no answers to any of the above questions. Luckily, it's only mid-October, so it's not a time for answers yet anyway. What I do know is this: As long as Vonleh keeps doing the little things right, showing little incremental bits of improvement as 2016-17 goes on, he'll be well on his way to proving himself as a worthy NBA player.

Not bad for a guy who spent all last year as little more than a talking point.