Noah Vonleh is lucky. Most players have to wait years to get a second chance and he’s getting that opportunity in his second season. After being traded to the Trail Blazers by the Hornets, he’ll truly get to hit the reset button on his career at only 19 years of age. If his Summer League run is any indication, the Blazers are also lucky. The talented power forward could emerge as a breakout player next year.
Vonleh’s career didn’t start well. He had surgery to fix a sports hernia before the start of his rookie year and the time he spent recovering clearly put him at a disadvantage. He was one of the youngest players drafted, so he was expected to struggle a bit to adjust in the first place. The injury made that worse. He barely got to play as part of a crowded big man rotation for a Charlotte team that refused to use a lost year to give its young players playing time, fighting instead for a playoff spot they failed to grab.
Because Vonleh played so little (259 minutes over 25 games), it’s hard to make an assessment of him as a player. Yet the two skills that intrigued scouts were on display. Vonleh rebounded well on a per minute basis and he flashed range extending to beyond the three-point line, making five three-pointers on 13 attempts. His struggles were related to a lack of finishing ability inside and a general feel for the game, which are expected from a very young player who had to fill out his frame and learn the intricacies of the game under completely different rules.
With Portland’s Summer League team this year, he showed improvement in the areas in which he struggled while building on his strengths. The difference between his first run in Vegas and his second one is huge.
Granted, it’s Summer League, a setting in which Seth Curry is unstoppable and Doug McDermott destroys opponents in the post. Yet not only are Vonleh’s numbers staggeringly better than the ones from 2014, but his play has looked more mature as well.
Vonleh has gotten noticeably stronger and used his big body well to battle against players that would’ve manhandled him a year ago. When matched up against centers – which was often – he was physical but also smart. He took slower guys off the dribble instead of trying to bully his way inside on offense. By being more patient but also assertive he became a good inside finisher.
His rebounding remained great, as he used his body to box out and his length to get boards in traffic. His shooting touch, meanwhile, opened things up for his teammates and he wasn’t hesitant to pull the trigger, connecting on five of his 10 three-pointers.
The only area in which he struggled was playmaking, on both ends. Vonleh was decent on defense, rarely taking possessions off and making an effort to be in the right place at the right time, but he still has a ways to go before being an impact player, as illustrated by the fact that he logged only one steal and one block in four games. On offense he talked about setting his teammates up but was mostly a finisher despite being unselfish.
All in all, the results were good. Vonleh showed the tools to be a threat to score from inside and out, which should make him a matchup nightmare, while cleaning up the boards and competing on the defensive end. With his tremendous physical skills that include a 7’5″ wingspan and 37-inch vertical he could develop into a plus defender in time. The challenge for coach Terry Stotts will be to find ways to use him in ways that highlight his strengths while hiding his weaknesses.
The Blazers have three players who can only hurt opponents inside in Chris Kaman, Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee, and Vonleh and Meyers Leonard who can stretch the defense. It’s very likely his minutes come next to Plumlee or Kaman, but the pairing with Leonard is very intriguing on the offensive end. The third-year big man was a good rim protector last year while also showing deft three-point touch. Playing him next to Vonleh would create a lot of space for the perimeter players to operate and could result in an explosive offense.
The problem might come on defense. Ideally Vonleh would spend time with bigger players who can handle centers while he chases around power forwards. Someone who can both offer a semblance of rim protection while also having a very high basketball IQ would be the perfect partner. Unfortunately, the Trail Blazers don’t have that type of Andrew Bogut-like player right now to clean up the mistakes Vonleh will surely make as he adapts. It wouldn’t be shocking to see lineups that include Vonleh struggling a bit on defense, at least at first.
The Blazers have added a lot of intriguing players and it’ll be fascinating to watch how they transition away from the LaMarcus Aldridge era. No player on that roster has as much potential to be special as Vonleh. He’s not ready to be a dominant player right now, but his Summer League showed he checks all the boxes of what teams want their big men to be in this new perimeter-oriented league. There will be growing pains along the way, but if they’re patient with him, Portland could unearth a core player for the future.