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Noah Vonleh giving Trail Blazers something to think about

Phoenix Suns guard Tyler Ulis drives to the basket against Portland Trail Blazers forward Noah Vonleh during the third quarter of an NBA preseason basketball game in Portland, Ore., Friday, Oct. 7, 2016. The Blazers won 115-110. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)
AP Photo/Steve Dykes

Noah Vonleh’s Halloween costume could be Dracula, because he’s rising up from the coffin he’s apparently been sleeping in the last two seasons.

So far the most exciting things about Vonleh’s career have been (a) his meteoric rise up draft boards in 2014 and (b) being traded by the Charlotte Hornets on draft night to the Portland Trail Blazers in a package for Nicolas Batum. In other words, the former ninth overall pick hasn’t impressed in his NBA career thus far.

That is until this preseason, when Vonleh has shown signs of life these last two games for Portland. After taking five weeks to recover from offseason thigh surgery, Vonleh returned to the court against the Phoenix Suns and put up 14 points and 14 rebounds. In his next game against the Los Angles Lakers, he finished with six points and five rebounds in 13 minutes.

A guy who spent his first two seasons just kind of being there made his presence felt in those games, particularly on the glass, where Vonleh has the skills and size to be among the league’s elite. Of his 19 rebounds in the preseason, eight of them were on the offensive glass. At 6-foot-10, 240 pounds with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, Vonleh won’t be out-sized on the boards. It was his mindset that needed work, and Portland coaches told him to “be a monster.”

He’s brought more energy to the floor, banging with bodies in traffic and fighting for contested rebounds. It’s something we hadn’t seen from him, but maybe something rubbed off on him after spending some time training in Los Angeles with Russell Westbrook.

The rebounding, though, was expected eventually. What was not was his development on the offensive end. He’s no Hakeem Olajuwon, but Vonleh has shown off more consistent footwork in the post, not to mention a soft hook shot, one he showed off at the end of the fourth quarter against the Suns to seal the win:

Vonleh is nine of 13 from the field this preseason, including four dunks and a perfect 3-of-3 on the hook shots he’s attempted. He’s even hit on a couple of outside jumpers, too, which will be there for him in Portland’s spread offense.

Given this is just the preseason this strong play may not mean much, but Vonleh’s come into this season motivated. Damian Lillard praised his work ethic this summer, and the injury gave him time to think about his approach to the season.

But his biggest motivation could be trying to carve out a roster spot on a team loaded with young guys. While Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee seem to have the starting 4 and 5 spots locked down, Vonleh is competing with guys like Meyers Leonard, Festus Ezeli, Ed Davis and Moe Harkless (when he slides to the 4) for minutes:

“We paid a lot of guys,” Vonleh said. “We have Moe back, we have Al-Farouq (Aminu), Meyers is about to come back from his injury. So whatever opportunity I get, I’ve got to go out there and showcase something so it makes the coaches think, ‘Man, Noah’s playing really well, we’ve got to try to find some time for him out there.’ I’m just going to try to keep it consistent as much as I can.”

Portland was one of the best rebounding teams in the league last season and ranked third in offensive rebound percentage. The team values rebounding, but it’s not in desperate need of rebounders. If he wants a role, Vonleh will have to bring that while continuing to develop his post moves to try to live up to his explosive frame and athleticism.

Davis is more mobile and Plumlee more versatile, and their spots in the rotation are set. Vonleh will be competing more with Leonard and Ezeli, in whom the team invested a combined $56 million this summer.

Portland spent a ton of money this summer to keep its own guys — Leonard, C.J. McCollum, Harkless and Allen Crabbe — and on Ezeli and Evan Turner. They will narrowly limbo under the luxury tax this season, but will have a much harder time next season when the first year of McCollum’s $104 million extension kicks in. Therefore they may be looking to trade one of their higher-priced bigs by the trade deadline. If what Vonleh is showing in the preseason continues into the regular season, he could make one of Portland’s other, more expensive, bigs expendable.

This is the most we’ve ever seen from Vonleh and, as he fights for a role on the team, he’s giving the Trail Blazers something to think about.

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