Noah Vonleh didn’t have much of a chance to ease into his fourth year in the NBA. After starting 41 games for the Trail Blazers last season, he missed the team’s first seven games this season due to a shoulder injury. Upon his return November 1st against the Utah Jazz, he seemed destined for a reserve role. Al-Farouq Aminu was playing too well to be supplanted. With Caleb Swanigan and Ed Davis excelling in the second unit, there was some question as to whether Vonleh could find significant minutes at all.
Then Aminu rolled his ankle badly in the second half of the Blazer’s loss to the Jazz. Vonleh has started all three games since that point. He didn’t look rusty in the Jazz game, scoring five points in 13 minutes, including an impressive dunk off of a feed from Pat Connaughton. He also went 3-3 from the free throw line, a welcome sight after he shot a career-low 63.8% from the charity stripe last season.
But that was he only field goal Vonleh would convert in his first three games, with only seven attempts total. He rebounded Tuesday night against the Memphis Grizzlies with a six-point performance, shooting 3-4 from the field. His scoring came off of second-chance points, the product of offensive rebounds. He looked much more involved and aggressive, logging big first half court time with Jusuf Nurkic in foul trouble. He finished the game with a season-high 22 minutes.
Since returning, Vonleh’s greatest contributions have come on the glass and the defensive end of the floor. Against Memphis he posted a season-high ten rebounds. This followed eight rebounds against the Thunder, five of those in the third quarter alone. Rebounding was one of his biggest strengths last season, so it is reasonable to expect this trend to continue.
Vonleh has also recorded three blocks, including two in the first quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers last Thursday. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t have much more of an impact on that game, as foul trouble limited him to just 15 minutes, despite getting the start. Rookie Zach Collins actually started the second half of the game after Vonleh drew four fouls in the first half.
The big question is what happens when Aminu returns. The starting lineup can get by without Vonleh scoring, as he is likely the fifth option anyway. His best production last season came when starting alongside Nurkic, averaging 6.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. The starting role might still fit Vonleh, while Portland could use Aminu’s energy off the bench.
The decision will likely depend on what happens between now and Aminu’s return. If he continues to contribute, Vonleh should command 15 to 25 minutes per game. Avoiding foul trouble will be key.
Portland’s depth (or lack thereof) will be key during the long, 82-game season. Vonleh’s return has certainly made the team deeper. His presence has bolstered an already-improved frontline. If he keeps it going, he’ll relegate Swanigan to rookie rotation minutes. If he steps it up a notch, this could be a breakout season for him and the team.