For most of Noah Vonleh’s nearly two-season tenure with the Portland Trail Blazers, he has been something of a disappointment; inconsequential at best and downright overmatched at worst. There have been thousands of words written on this site about his potential and whether or not he will take the leap. And while it doesn’t look like that will happen—at least this year—a close look shows that Vonleh has been a much more effective player since Jusuf Nukić joined the starting lineup.
To be fair, the improvement isn’t drastic while looking at the basic statistics. Vonleh wasn’t scoring much before Nurkić’s arrival, or doing much in the way of putting points on the board. But he has been much more efficient despite his usage essentially staying the same, moving from shooting less than 41 percent before Nurk’s arrival to 64 percent from the floor since.
So what’s changed? The most obvious difference is Nurkić’s ability to find Vonleh as a baseline cutter. It’s only happened a handful of times, but Nurk draws defensive attention in the paint in a way that Mason Plumlee never could, giving Vonleh much easier shots—and a much higher field goal percentage as a result.
For example, when getting the ball on the block, Nurkić often makes a quick baseline spin before his defender can get set, which forces the far-side defender to come over to help. All Vonleh (or often Moe Harkless) has to do is cut to the rim and Nurkić can find him for an easy two. That’s the advantage of having a big man with that sort of gravity. Plumlee was an excellent facilitator for Portland, but he never demanded extra attention from additional defenders.
Related to the concept of gravity—Vonleh is better able to get clean looks off of his offensive rebounds with Nurkić’s effectiveness at boxing out opponents. While he isn’t grabbing any more offensive rebounds than before Nurkić arrived, and actually fewer per minute, Vonleh has been getting better looks when he goes up after gathering an offensive rebound. Some of this is that he’s literally just going up stronger; some of this is that he has more room to do so.
Defensively is where Vonleh has really been able to shine since Nurk joined the team. He’s always had the basic tools, but they have made a nice pairing, leading the team with a 101.3 DRtg as a two-man lineup since they paired up (minimum of 50 minutes played together). More interestingly, when looking at the same criteria, the next three best two-man lineups are Vonleh with each of the other three starters —giving credence to the theory that Vonleh has actually stepped up his defensive game as a result of being paired with Nurkić, as opposed to being a statistical beneficiary while mostly being a bystander.
So how is this happening? There are a couple of reasons. With a big man in the middle who can effectively control the paint, Vonleh is able to stick on his man without drifting away because he feels like he might need to help at any given second. Having confidence in the guy behind you can’t be overstated. Small shifts in defensive positioning make a lot of difference in terms of opponent field goal percentage, creating turnovers, and committing fouls.
Additionally, when Vonleh does make the decision to help down low, a Nurkić/Vonleh double team is more effective than a Plumlee/Vonleh double team. Vonleh likely feels more confident in his decision-making on the defensive end and it’s starting to show up in his defensive rating.
Despite the fact that Nurkić’s performance will likley come back to earth somewhat this season, Vonleh’s performance next to him should be sustainable. Nurkić won’t lose the ability to find him on the baseline or suddenly not be a big space-eater in the paint. Where Vonleh can continue to improve is in his aggressiveness on the boards and in his ability to maintain defensive space without fouling.
Should this thus-far successful pairing make the Blazers think twice about looking to upgrade at the power forward spot this offseason? Well, let’s not get crazy. While Vonleh has improved to the point that he’s actually a positive on the court, he still is only putting up fewer than 18 minutes a night. While I’m thrilled with his recent contributions, we’re still talking about a guy who’s improved to score five points per game.
That said, Vonleh is starting to find a couple things he can do decently; it looks like it just took Nurkić’s arrival to get more out of him.