When Noah Vonleh dropped to the Hornets at the ninth pick of the 2014 NBA Draft, it was like a dream come true for the team. Vonleh is a freak, standing 6'9" with a 7'4" wingspan and 37" vertical. His defense is solid. He eats rebounds for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He is a power forward with range, exactly what a team looking to spread the floor like the Hornets needs. To top it all off, he is just 19 years old.
The question becomes just how ready Vonleh is to contribute to the team. What can fans expect from last year's Big Ten Freshman of the Year?
Vonleh's offense remains a work in progress, which may be part of the reason he slid to the Hornets. He has solid range for someone his size, as shown by his 60.4 True Shooting Percentage, his 56% Effective Field Goal Percentage, and this 48.5% shooting from 3-point land (although he had a limited sample size of just 33 shots from behind the 3-point line). The Hornets want him to become a stretch four, so Vonleh will need to be consistent with his jump shot.
They will also need him to become more polished inside, eventually. He has some good inside moves, but nothing too advanced. He was able to use his strength and length to his advantage against his collegiate competition, but that will be much harder to do against NBA players. The good news is he has one of the best duos to learn about post play from in Al Jefferson and Patrick Ewing.
Another strength of Vonleh's in college was drawing fouls and making the ensuing free throws. Vonleh shot 7.8 free throws per 40 minutes during his one year at Indiana and converted 71.6% of his attempts from the line. And if the Hornets do plan on running more fast breaks, Vonleh would fit in quite well. Though he is not the fastest, he showed at Indiana that he is more than capable of running the fast break, often beating other bigs down the floor for easy baskets. He also has surprisingly good moves for someone his size and has shown he is adept at the pick and roll game.
Unfortunately, Vonleh's basketball IQ was not the best at times last season, as he had a tendency to force the issue and had trouble finding his Hoosier teammates. He had three times as many turnovers (64) as he had assists (18), which is something he will have to improve upon if he hopes to find extended minutes from Steve Clifford. Additionally, he sometimes struggled to catch passes because his hands were not up and ready to catch that ball.
Defensively, Vonleh made great use of his strength and length last season, much like he did on offense. He finished his one college season with a defensive rating of 91.7, fourth-best in the Big Ten. The question is whether or not his 240-pound frame will be able to handle the bigger fours in the league. He had plenty of excellent individual defensive showings last year, evident in his averages of just over a block per game and almost a steal per game. However, he had a tendency to get into foul trouble.
More worrisome is that he sometimes had mental lapses when it came to team defense, where he would rotate late or sometimes not at all to help cover for teammate's mistake. Fortunately, Vonleh already has a reputation as a hard worker and is by all accounts being very coachable, so hopefully Clifford can help fix those problems.
And now we get to what makes Noah Vonleh so good — his rebounding prowess. To misquote everyone's favorite poorly translated video game line of all time, all your rebounds are belong to him.
Vonleh is able to combine his 7'4" wingspan with seemingly non-stop hustle and great instincts to grab almost any rebound or loose ball that comes near him. Just look at the photo up above. Again, those are his actual arms. Those are not normal human being arms. Those are 'go go gadget arms!' arms.
Vonleh averaged nine boards per game at Indiana, which was tops in the Big Ten and 37th in the nation. If you go deeper, you'll find he averaged more than two offensive boards per game. On top of that, his rebounding percentage numbers are staggering. He finished with a total rebound percentage of 19.4%, a defensive rebound percentage of 27.3% (!) and an offensive rebound percentage of 10.8%. To translate, that means that when Vonleh was on the floor at Indiana, he grabbed nearly 20% of available rebounds overall, including more than a quarter of the available rebounds on defense. More than one of every four rebounds went his way. I am trying to wrap my head around that, and it is not working.
Of course, the buzz word with Vonleh is the ever dangerous p-word: potential. Potential is what got Bismack Biyombo drafted so high, and it is what gives fans hope for players like Vonleh. He is only 19 years old, and if he can polish one or two more parts of his game, he should become a star. Now, before you go worry that he is Biyombo 2.0, take solace in the fact that Vonleh's offensive game is already two or three times better than Biyombo's.
His sports hernia surgery also came at a very poor time for the young man. Preseason would've been the ideal time for Vonleh to work on all of the weaknesses I addressed above, but because of the injury, he missed all of the training camp, will most likely miss all of the preseason, and may not be ready in time for the start of the regular season.
And when he does return? The Hornets play 18 games in the month of November, a very heavy schedule that does not leave much time for rest or practice. Expect the Hornets to ease him back into the lineup.
Vonleh will likely see most of his playing time with the second unit, at least at the start of the season. Clifford has already slated Marvin WIlliams to start at the four, and the Hornets will take their time with Vonleh's return to injury. The last thing you want to do with your top draft pick is to rush him back and cause him to hurt himself further and miss more time.
It will take time for Vonleh to adjust to the NBA — that was no secret coming into the season. But with the injury, it could take him some time to fully adjust. Remember how long it took Cody Zeller to get his game together? Try not to expect too much from Vonleh in his rookie year. He will be a great body off the bench to fill in minutes with the second team, but not much more than that until he gets his legs under him.
All stats from sports-reference.com