With just over one week to go until the start of the 2016-17 NBA season, the Portland Trail Blazers are rounding into form. Some players started the preseason red hot, some started the preseason ice cold, and others are still recovering from injury. Power forward Noah Vonleh was among those to miss time, but he wasted none upon his return from a thigh procedure that had sidelined him since August 31.
In Vonleh’s preseason debut against the Phoenix Suns on October 7, he dominated the glass, securing 14 rebounds in just 20 minutes of action. This became a trend for him in games against the Los Angeles Lakers and the Denver Nuggets as well. To date, Vonleh has truly impressed, averaging 7.5 rebounds in 16 minutes per game (16.9 rebounds per 36 minutes) during his preseason campaign.
Despite what is likely to be limited playing time in a crowded Portland front court, his role on this team is becoming more clear.
“I definitely think I can be one of the guys up there,” Vonleh told Blazer’s Edge. “Especially with Ed (Davis) and Mason (Plumlee) and Farouq (Aminu) and Moe (Harkless). We got a lot of guys that can rebound, but I feel like I could definitely be up there as one of the top three guys on the team in rebounding.”
This seems like a reasonable goal. Using the per 36-minute metric, once again, Vonleh was actually third in rebounding for the Trail Blazers last season, behind only Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee. He is remarkably strong and well-built at 21 years old. If the minutes are there, the boards will be as well.
Make no mistake, the path is not paved for him to produce in other areas this year, but the Trail Blazers do not necessarily need him to. Head coach Terry Stotts expects his primary contributions to come as a strong defender and rebounder.
“I think he has a better feel for the game and for the team and how he fits in.” Stotts said. “He’s not going to be a go-to guy offensively, but we want his opportunities to be taken advantage of when they’re there. Defensively, he’s got to be a solid defender, a good rebounder for us.”
Not a problem. Vonleh has always been aggressive, he’s just now getting comfortable. With one year in Portland under his belt, he has a stable environment for growth and simple expectations in the season to come. Just go be a monster on the glass. That identity should resonate with him.
“It’s always been my mindset from a young age. In high school and throughout college I just liked playing physical.” Vonleh declared. “I use my quickness to beat guys to the spot, have a nose for the ball, and figure out where the rebound’s going to come off, and just go and get it.”
All that said, we can expect some early hiccups. Players have to play both sides of the ball in order to stay on the court for long, and Vonleh is still making adjustments on offense—though it is encouraging that he has made 14-22 attempts (63.6 percent) in preseason after more than a month off.
Vonleh holds himself to a high standard, and he doesn’t feel quite right yet.
“Just touches I’m not finishing really well in some areas; that’s the main thing I feel a little rusty on. Just not finishing well around the rim and stuff that I feel like I’m used to. As we go along more in practice, and throughout the season, I’m going to feel a lot better with it.”
If Vonleh continues to look as good as he has in preseason once the regular season begins, this could be a big year for the forward, regardless of what the box scores will tell you. Like Harkless before his breakout last season, Vonleh is patient, confident, and constantly preparing behind the scenes. He will be raring to go each time Stotts calls his name.
“I show (the coaches) here in practice that I’m going to communicate, I’m going to hustle, I’m going to do all the right things,” Vonleh asserted. “I’m going to go out there, execute the plays well, be in the right spots, rebound, hustle like I said, and try to hit the open shot when they throw it to me.”
It would appear that, in a certain capacity, he may have a chance to do all that.