Former Trail Blazers big man Noah Vonleh is enjoying a career-year in his first season with the Knicks. After a two-and-half year stint in Portland, Vonleh has carved out a noticeable role in New York. His sudden emergence does present the question: did the Blazers give up on the 23-year-old forward too soon?
With that question in mind, Blazer’s Edge contributors Brian Freeman and Steve Dewald will exchange their views on Vonleh’s stint with the Blazers in today’s post.
Noah Vonleh is playing 24.6 minutes per night on the 7-16 Knicks. He is putting up 8 points per game, and connecting on 47.7 percent of his shots. Outside of his field goal percentage, those are all career-high numbers. Is this a case of him putting up stats on a bad team, or has Vonleh finally turned the corner?
Steve Dewald: I hate to hedge right out of the gates, but I think Vonleh’s current figures are a combination of both. After the Blazers shipped him to Chicago prior to last year’s trade deadline, Vonleh got a wide berth with the Bulls. He attempted a career-high 6.6 field goals per game, but his production was far from consistent.
Now with the Knicks, Vonleh’s scoring average is higher with fewer attempts. It is clear that the former Indiana standout has a bigger role than he did with Portland, but he has also upped his efficiency since his brief stint with Chicago.
Brian Freeman: I was against Portland getting rid of Vonleh in the first place. I’m against all non-basketball salary moves, but I also wasn’t done with him in a Blazers uniform. People forget that when the Blazers dumped Vonleh, he was just 22 years old. His shooting and statistical improvements are pretty congruent with his age, so I do think progress is a big component here. Of course, I’m not betting on him to make an All-Star team, and certainly not counting out the ‘bad team’ effect, but I’m not surprised by the jump.
Was the writing on the wall after the 2017 NBA Draft? With Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan added to the roster, it was obvious that the Blazers no longer viewed Vonleh as the post player of the future. Is that accurate, or do you think Vonleh would have carved out minutes on the current roster?
Brian: After the draft, the Blazers had Jusuf Nurkic, Meyers Leonard, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, Maurice Harkless, Collins, Caleb Swanigan and Vonleh all on the roster. Eight guys (if you generously count Harkless) best suited for the 4-5 spots, and all of them deserved some time on the court. It didn’t make any sense to construct the team that way, and it made less sense to keep it like that. To this day, I’m not sure what the plan was.
Steve: The continued improvement from Nurkic and Collins would have been sizable hurdles for Vonleh to overcome. That being said, his rebounding and versatility would have given him an edge over some of other options on the roster. Injury setbacks, cold streaks and foul trouble would have provided him with a path to playing time. Outside of those occasions, I have trouble imagining a re-occurring role for Vonleh. Depending on the matchup, it is likely that coach Terry Stotts would still call upon Leonard first.
This conversation really comes down to this question: did Portland separate from Vonleh too soon?
Steve: It all comes down to what you think Vonleh could have accomplished in the last half of the 2017-18 season. With Collins entering his second season, and Nurkic on his way to an extension, I don’t think the Blazers would have been interested in signing Vonleh to a new contract in the summer. Portland let proven big man Ed Davis walk, and I doubt they would have forked over the cash to sign Vonleh’s 3.6 points per game output.
Right now, I am focused solely on rooting for Vonleh to advance his career. As a Blazers fan, I haven’t reached Jermaine-O’Neal-level stages of remorse. After four years with Portland, O’Neal captured the spotlight by starting in 80 games for a 41-41 Pacers team. He then went on to be selected to six consecutive All-Star Games. Vonleh’s production is nowhere near that, yet. If he reaches those levels, maybe I’ll start pointing the finger at the Blazers’ front office.
Brian: Portland had given up on Vonleh, and they clearly didn’t know that Vonleh was capable of making the leap as a shooter. The type of basketball that Vonleh is playing now would fit seamlessly with Portland. He is shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc, he can switch all over the place and he rebounds the ball with passion. He clearly fits the needs of this current Blazer team.
Here is Vonleh’s stats compared to Portland’s current starting power forward:
For the record, I am not saying I’d take Vonleh over Aminu. I wouldn’t. But in less minutes, Vonleh has been better so far this year. You can’t tell me he couldn’t come off the bench and provide a spark.
Do you side with Steve or Brian? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.