*double-checking my notes*
Yes, I do have that right.
The ninth pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, the Bulls acquired Noah Vonleh with little fanfare, only hours before the 2018 trade deadline. Looking to get under the luxury tax, the Portland Trail Blazers shipped Vonleh to Chicago for cap relief after falling out of the rotation, allowing the Bulls to take a risk-free flier on the former blue-chip prospect.
Vonleh, a former All-American, played college ball at Indiana University, where he wasted no time leaving a major impact. In his only year as a Hoosier, he averaged 11 points and 9 rebounds, finished first in the conference in rebounding, and was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. He would cash his successful season in for a lottery selection, where the Charlotte Hornets would scoop him up and promptly tie him to the bench.
In Vonleh’s words, “Charlotte, they were a playoff team and I was a lottery pick so it was tough. They had their team set and brought in more veteran guys to help them get back to the playoffs, so that was tough.”
After failing to crack the rotation in Charlotte, Vonleh was cast off to Portland after only one season in exchange for veteran small forward Nick Batum the Hornets needed more immediate help in their playoff pursuits. But Vonleh again found himself stuck on the wrong team at the wrong time, as Portland had playoff aspirations of their own. For Noah, “Being in Portland, a playoff team, is tough for young guys because being on a team like that you make mistakes, you are coming out quick.”
Seemingly a journeyman at only age 22, Vonleh may have finally settled into a long-term home at the United Center.
“I’m definitely learning the NBA game [here], getting more comfortable, especially being around a young team. I can play through mistakes and get more comfortable game after game. I’m 22 years old. Most of the guys around are my age. We can definitely build something special here”, he said.
He’s not just saying that either — Vonleh’s time in Chicago, even in a limited sample size, has been impressive. While he wrapped his time with the Bulls this season averaging a modest 7 points and 7 rebounds in 19 minutes per game, Vonleh’s film shows he’s capable of plenty more. He demonstrated unusual agility, strength, and skill for someone of his size and stature, and showed off all the makings of a prototypical modern NBA big man.
At 6’9″, there doesn’t seem to be a reason why Vonleh is such a dominant force on the glass. His leaping ability won’t blow you out of the gym, but his tight-end-like physique and massive 7’4.5″ wingspan, as long as that of Kevin Durant and Dwight Howard, enables him to cast aside foes and snare rebounds at will. His strength, frame, and aggression on the glass is so reminiscent of 1990’s NBA basketball that it’s easy to forget he’s only been able to drink legally for a year.
Among those who logged at least 200 minutes this season, Vonleh placed 19th league-wide in total rebounding percentage, an estimate of the percentage of available rebounds a player grabbed while he was on the floor. That mark placed him ahead of well-established big men and notorious vacuums such as Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert, Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, and LaMarcus Aldridge. Vonleh is an elite rebounder already, and has plenty of room to improve as he gains experience.
Vonleh’s unique blend of strength, speed, and skill is a nightmare to match up with on the offensive end. When he’s got his momentum, there’s just not much defenders can do. With the ability to put the ball on the deck, he’s able to blow past slower bigs with ease.
— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) March 25, 2018
If he’s tasked with a smaller, quicker assignment, he’ll lower his shoulder and Mack-Truck his way to the cup.
Well alright, Noah Vonleh 😶 pic.twitter.com/UHQmm5zV5g
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) March 20, 2018
And if neither of those work, his handle is tight enough to snatch ankles.
Noah Vonleh drives…. Cody Zeller drops 😅 pic.twitter.com/mbB87tVtpI
— Def Pen Hoops (@DefPenHoops) February 28, 2018
Unlike much of his time in Charlotte and Portland, Vonleh also demonstrated a surprising comfort and fluidity in his three-point shot. You’d have to think the Trail Blazers would think twice about giving Vonleh away for free had he shown this level of confidence in his stroke from distance on a consistent basis:
Noah Vonleh For 3 pic.twitter.com/IU4KCwVTVk
— Gustavo Vega (@iamvega1982) February 25, 2018
In all, Vonleh made an impressive 18 threes in 21 games for the Bulls at a respectable 30 percent clip — certainly figures to build on for the 22-year old moving forward. In today’s NBA, the ability for bigs to spread the floor and gift guards driving lanes is essential–particularly in Fred Hoiberg‘s offense, which is predicated on spacing and three-point shooting.
Beyond his well-developed offensive arsenal, Vonleh shows plenty of promise on the other end of the court as well. While he has the strength and length to bang down low with the league’s brutes, Vonleh’s excellent footwork and quickness allows him to stay in front of faster opponents, and switch onto smaller guards if necessary. Watch as he keeps pace with the nimbler Brandon Ingram, then shows excellent anticipation to rotate over and turn away his shot a second time.
Noah Vonleh is hosting a block party in Portland. #RipCity
— Price of Victory (@price_victory) November 3, 2017
With limited leaping ability and only a 1.3% Block Percentage this season, he’s no Patrick Ewing, but Vonleh’s anticipation and length is more than enough to fit him in as a rim protector in many small ball lineups.
To improve, Vonleh must continue to hone his shooting and expand his offensive arsenal beyond threes straight line drives. He’s shown flashes of an excellent back-to-the basket game, but an expanded array of post moves would further solidify his growth as an offensive threat. He has yet to put his unique skill-set to full use on a nightly basis, but as he continues to gain experience and minutes on a consistent basis, look for Vonleh to show major strides sooner than later.
In today’s game, bigs with the versatility to stretch the floor, switch on defense, and protect the rim are invaluable–those who can tilt a game with their dominant rebounding ability are even rarer. While Vonleh formed a nice tandem with Bobby Portis coming off the bench toward the end of the season, I’d like to see him as a small-ball center in more first-team lineups with Markkanen. Two bigs with their caliber of athleticism and skill would unlock driving lanes for Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, and provide Hoiberg with plenty of flexibility on either end of the floor.
Vonleh will be a restricted free agent this June, but he’s done more than enough to prove his worth to a team in no position to cast aside such high-upside talent. The Bulls will retain the right to match any offer sheet he signs, but the league’s limited salary cap flexibility will likely land Vonleh on a bargain contract. Bulls fans should hope he’s finally found a home in Chicago.
Feature Photo Credit: NBA.com