So far this offseason, and even back into the regular season and playoffs, there has been a lot of chatter about the Trail Blazers' need to pick up a big man via free agency or trade to shore up the paint defense and provide a release valve for when opposing defenses double heavily on Portland's backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Al Horford, Hassan Whiteside, Dwight Howard, Greg Monroe, Jahlil Okafor - the list goes on. Portland could use any one of these players, to varying degrees, depending on what they have to give up in trade, how much cap space they can maneuver, etc. I'm completely on board with the idea that Portland needs to take a look at the availability of every one of the players listed, but the likelihood of getting one of these guys frankly isn't very high.
Now don't get me wrong; In the new NBA landscape, I think the narrative of Portland not being able to attract free agents is outdated. However, the reality is that a lot of teams that will be lining up to fork over a boatload of cash to any one of these guys, and the odds simply don't favor Portland getting one of the top-tier free agent big men.
I've seen a lot of discussion regarding Portland's plan B (or C) in this scenario - bringing back the guys we have and letting them develop for another year. I've read passionate pleas for fans to be patient with Meyers Leonard or that we need to see what we have with Maurice Harkless before we let him go in restricted free agency for the sake of signing a big name.
The one player no one seems to be talking about is Noah Vonleh.
Yeah, I get it. It makes sense on the surface - Vonleh didn't produce big (or even average) numbers and often times looked hesitant on the court. He didn't have the full-on, deer-in-the-headlights "what is this round orange thing in my hands?" look that Leonard had for his first two seasons, but he clearly was playing tentatively. And that will need to stop, because there's a possibility that Portland will be counting on Vonleh to step up next season, with or without a big name acquisition.
Much has been written about Portland's cap space situation and how some difficult decisions will need to be made with regards to restricted free agents Allen Crabbe, Harkless, and Leonard. There's a decent probability that at least one of them won't be back with the team. If Portland does land a big name center, that's likely to cause some frontcourt consolidation, or if Leonard receives a so-called "toxic" contract offer - which I believe to be likely - Vonleh is going to get minutes again next season.
As fallback plans go, I actually don't think this one is too bad.
Vonleh is a 20-year-old big body with less than 1500 minutes played in his entire career. He already features excellent footwork, solid rebounding, and passable defense, with the clear physical tools to get better. Vonleh's measurements at the NBA draft combine were off the chart, putting up a 7-foot-4 wingspan to go against his 6-foot-9 frame. Unsurprisingly, Vonleh has always been an adept rebounder, particularly on the offensive glass.
The young big has already shown flashes of a capable jumpshot, shooting 45 percent in his career from 10-16 feet out. With clean shot mechanics, he can be expected to extend his range out to near the 3-point line as he matures.
In fact, I see Vonleh developing into a lesser version of one of Portland's rumored targets: Al Horford. The real issue is that even if this is an accurate comparison, it's not going to bear fruit next year. So that said, it's clear that Portland's primary focus should be an immediate upgrade in the frontcourt. After a surprising season which saw a second round playoff series and a 55-win pace after the All-Star break, Portland's window may not be wide open, but it's slightly cracked. A big name center joining the team would possibly push that window wide open.
But let's not forget that we are just about to enter year two of a rebuild. One thing has been made clear during Neil Olshey's tenure in Portland: If he isn't able to land a big-time player, he's not going to tie up future flexibility. With CJ McCollum's looming extension, he isn't likely to have much flexibility regardless after next season, but he's not going to spend money on a big man just to spend it, especially with Vonleh's potential combined with Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee providing significant value against their contracts.
Portland has some difficult decisions to make this offseason, and it's possible that any or nearly all of Leonard, Harkless, Plumlee, and Davis could be gone in free agency or trade. I want to be clear that I'm really high on what Harkless brings as the starting power forward, but there are so many variables for Portland this offseason that Neil Olshey may need to sacrifice someone like Mo Harkless in order to have a bigger net gain at another position. This would mean rolling the dice with Vonleh as a starter or main reserve power forward.
Hopefully Vonleh is working hard this offseason, ready for his shot, because it's coming at some point. After a breakout Summer League in 2015, he never quite delivered during the regular season. All the tools are there, and there's a chance, no matter how slight, that he's going to be relied upon to be a key piece for the Blazers next season.
Don't forget to tune in for Blazer's Edge radio featuring Peter Sampson, every Tuesday at Noon on XRAY 107.1 FM in Portland.