While Noah Vonleh has only played 231 NBA games, the question still remains whether he hasn’t found enough time in a learning-curve league, or whether he simply can’t hang with the big dogs.
Most lottery picks, in any sport, get at least one season to prove themselves. New York Jets savior Sam Darnold is holding steady under the rookie spotlight right now. Kristaps Porzingis got a chance to prove his mettle after Carmelo Anthony’s departure, and he passed with flying colors. New Knicks signee Noah Vonleh, picked ninth in the 2014 NBA Draft, hasn’t really had that opportunity yet during his four seasons in the league.
They’ve been four wholly underwhelming years for Vonleh, which makes it easy to forget that he was supposed to be “Chris Bosh Lite” coming out of college. He shot over 50 percent from three at Indiana University, albeit on very few attempts. Although he’s a below-the-rim player, Vonleh is remarkably agile for a 6-foot-10 human being. He’s strong, and he boasts a monster 7-foot-4 wingspan. He can face up, put the ball on the floor, and has a soft touch around the rim with either hand. When the Charlotte Hornets drafted him, he was raw and flawed, but oozed the “p word” we’re all too eager to throw around: potential.
That’s usually enough to get a legitimate trial period in the NBA, especially if said player is drafted to a bottom-feeder team like the 2014 Hornets. To use a current example from the newest draft class, it’s nearly unfathomable to imagine Marvin Bagley III sitting on the bench for this upcoming season with the Kings. Bagley isn’t a polished player yet, nor was Vonleh in 2014, but Sacramento’s first-round pick is almost guaranteed to get a lot of run. Vonleh didn’t get the same treatment. His rookie year was riddled with injuries (a hernia delayed his debut season by eight weeks) and included a brief stint in the D-League. At age 19, Vonleh played just 25 games total for the Hornets. He was traded the very next summer to Portland.
If Vonleh were a car, you could say he stalled out in the parking lot. He hasn’t delivered on any of his promise or made any significant improvements to his weaknesses. For someone billed as a theoretical stretch power forward, Vonleh is averaging just 0.2 threes made per game over four seasons on 30 percent shooting from beyond the arc. He’s a mediocre finisher around the rim and doesn’t draw many fouls (just 1.0 free throw attempted per game). And when he does earn trips to the line, Vonleh hasn’t shot well at all (66.4 percent from the charity stripe).
Perhaps the most disappointing Vonleh development thus far (or lack thereof) is his rebounding. Out of his whole overall package coming out of college, that skill was the only one that seemed unassailable, but he’s been horrible in that regard, averaging just 4.7 rebounds, 0.3 blocks, and 0.3 steals in the NBA. Is he really as bad as those numbers suggest?
I might be the only person in the world right now buying Noah Vonleh stock other than his close friends and family. Even the most optimistic Knicks fans don’t expect much from him this season, although many are holding out hope that he can fill some of Kyle O’Quinn’s void after the latter signed with the Indiana Pacers. I think Vonleh can do just that (key word: “can”).
In fact, I think his NBA ceiling, readjusted after four invisible seasons, was never “Chris Bosh Lite,” but rather “Kyle O’Quinn 1.5.”
Vonleh’s rebounding numbers per 36 minutes, 11.0 over his career, have always been strong. While he has struggled to make shots, I maintain that he has decent shooting mechanics, and if he can get a coaching staff that green lights him to shoot open threes á la O’Quinn, he could have a similar floor-stretching impact.
Again, we’re dealing with a tiny sample size. The clip above is from one game in a very forgettable half-season with the Chicago Bulls last year, and Vonleh has literally never, at any level past high school, shown he can consistently make threes. But we’ve seen what kind of effect confidence from coaches can have on a non-shooting role-player big like Aron Baynes. Over his entire NBA career, regular season and playoffs, Baynes came into the 2018 season with eight three-point attempts ever before taking 44 in one season. I’m not saying Vonleh will immediately make that kind of progress. I’m definitely not saying that. After all, Baynes was a useful NBA big man already when he added the corner deep-ball to his arsenal. Vonleh is not.
But that’s the whole point. No one in their right minds would bet that a career 4.1 points per game, 4.7 rebounds per game big man would make the leap to stardom just because of a change of scenery. I’m sure as hell not putting any money on that. What I am betting on is that a former no. nine overall pick that just turned 23 last month and can do this…
Vonleh euro to reverse jam. pic.twitter.com/a4i2DT8Gop
— TKW Clips (@TKWClips) September 17, 2018
…has something to offer an NBA team. Will it be the Knicks? Who knows. What we do know is that Kristaps Porzingis is out for an indefinite period of time, Kyle O’Quinn is in Indiana, and Joakim Noah is gone (was he ever really here?). Look at the team’s depth chart at power forward and center; New York can rely on Enes Kanter’s minutes and…that’s about it. They’ll see what they have in Mitchell Robinson and Luke Kornet (to a much lesser degree), but those guys are more unproven than Vonleh. I promise you Vonleh will have a chance to earn his place in the NBA this season. And I promise you he has the ingredients, whether they’re ready to eat or not, to cook up a play style that is palatable for at least a handful of big-hungry teams in the league. I don’t want it for over $10 million a year, but for one-year, $1.6 million, the contract size the Knicks have him at right now? That’s an absolute bargain. I truly believe that a player is only bad if they’re overpriced in the NBA.
This is it, though. There won’t be another chance for Vonleh. Despite being just 23, with barely 200 games under his belt, he hasn’t displayed anything to suggest he belongs in the NBA yet. Most lottery picks get to show what they’ve got in their first or second season. Vonleh will get it in his fifth.