The only thing more rare than the Hornets having a healthy roster this season, has been Noah Vonleh playing meaningful minutes. It's been almost three months since the last time he played in a game that wasn't already decided, and he had a solid performance in a win over the Toronto Raptors. We covered his performance in that game and the general consensus was Vonleh showed promise but lacked the polish to be a consistent system player night-in and night-out.
So when Cody Zeller and Al Jefferson were both ruled out of Saturday's game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Vonleh once again was forced to step up and contribute. Although you might have already seen this monster dunk over Nerlens Noel, there was a lot more to take away from this game, not all of which was positive. Considering Al Jefferson's health situation and the state of the season, Vonleh should be seeing a lot more action as the year comes to a close. For the time being, let's breakdown his game against Philadelphia.
Generally, the Charlotte Hornets are a system team. Last year, the team was perhaps at it's best when dedicated system veterans dominated the minutes. Players like Anthony Tolliver, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Josh McRoberts, and Gary Neal (yes he was good last year) were willing to play their roles and they consistently did what the system required they do. Therefore, it's not always the most physically dominating player that performs best in coach Steve Clifford's system, it's the one in the right place at the right time. This is important, because perhaps Vonleh's biggest weakness is his awareness of NBA schemes and systems; a normal weakness for rookies, and even more understandable when you consider he's just 19 years old.
In the game against Philadelphia, Vonleh found himself guarding Luc Mbah a Moute, who played mainly like a wing in the Sixers' system. Straight up, there is nothing Mbah a Moute does that Vonleh can't handle, but the Charlotte defense requires the power forward to play multiple coverages, which can leave the opposing four-man open on the perimeter.
This is typical Charlotte coverage in the pick-and-roll, and although Vonleh can likely jump out on a ball handler ("hedge"), it seems Clifford asked him to mainly drop back. In the picture above you can see Vonleh has a great stance and is ready to take on the ball handler or contest a shot at the elbow. Robert Covington diagnoses his predicament quickly and passes the ball cross court, and Vonleh quickly recovers to his man. In this same play, Vonleh and P.J. Hairston get caught in a late side pick-and-roll, with Mbah a Moute as the ball handler. He spins past Hairston and is rejected by Biyombo. Overall solid coverage from Vonleh on this play and a good example of how his size and length will be a plus in the future.
On this next play, Vonleh again sags back after the screen on the ball handler's man. He follows Robert Covington all the way to the rim and prevents a layup attempt. This leaves Vonleh's man wide open at the 3-point line and Covington finds him rather than forcing up a heavily contested shot.
This is where athleticism and speed come into play in Charlotte's system. Closing out is sometimes required three times in one possession, although only a few guys ever make that effort (cough, MKG, cough, 2nd Team All-Defense, cough).
In about one second, Vonleh gets from the rim to the 3-point line and heavily contests Mbah a Moute's shot. The end result was an air-ball and a solid defensive possession for the rookie. This is a play that Jason Maxiell, despite all of his veteran savvy and hustle, just can't physically make.
Although Vonleh's assignment ended up shooting poorly (Mbah a Moute finished 1-for-7 from the field), he did find himself at the free-throw line eight times. Vonleh was responsible for at least four of those eight free throws. One time he was too aggressive with his close-out and ended up fouling during the recovery. The other he failed to get a body on Mbah a Moute for a defensive rebound.
Defensive verdict: Solid despite a tough cover per Charlotte's system
In Charlotte's offensive "system" the power forward is relegated to a lot of screening, executing a few hand-offs at the elbows, and rarely sees any play calls. This isn't the ideal system for a player to put up stats. For example, you can watch a game where the Hornets offense plays well (a rarity I know) and Cody Zeller might come away with something like eight points in 28 minutes of action. Although that's inconsequential, it's likely the work Zeller did that opened up the offense for everyone else. So in this game, there wasn't much traditional isolation offense in which to judge Noah Vonleh.
However, he made a few nice plays and generally played with good purpose. In particular, his decision making in the hand-off game was solid. Although he generally played it safe, he did a good job creating contact after the hand-off, which was a problem in the Toronto game. Also, in the screen game, Vonleh did a good job of getting set, making contact, and rolling with purpose. He missed one or two screens by slipping too early, but he had a couple that were rather successful.
In this play, Vonleh sets a nice screen on Ish Smith, which frees up Mo Williams to draw the attention of Vonleh's man. The one thing that could improve is Vonleh's foot work after the screen. He needs to open up his body to Williams earlier to entice the pocket pass that would have found him wide open for an attempt at the rim. Despite missing the roll pass, Vonleh keeps eye contact with Williams and receives the ball deep in the paint.
After receiving the pass, he makes a nice quick dish to Jason Maxiell for the easy bucket.
In addition to the grunt work the system requires, Vonleh did find himself down in the post a few times against Mbah a Moute. The first time he drew a foul as his man was struggling to deal with his physicality. This was nice to see as Vonleh can be inconsistent with using his strong lower body rebounding and in the post. The next time he got the ball, he showed off the skill level that likely ensured his selection as a lottery pick.
Decent footwork, nice use of leverage to create separation, and a smooth, high release on the hook shot that would make Al Jefferson blush. As coach Steve Clifford will tell you, this is where Vonleh has a chance to make his money. If he can be an inside threat, teams won't be able to guard him with wings and "tweeners". As his defenders get bigger, so does his advantage on the perimeter, where his speed and ball handling could be considered elite at the power forward position.
Offensive verdict: Played within himself and showed some versatility
Although the competition wasn't of the highest caliber, this game was a good example of how Vonleh can affect the game from the power forward position. Although he might not be physical enough to man the middle behind Bismack Biyombo, there's no doubt he should be the third power forward behind Cody Zeller and Marvin Williams. Unfortunately, he's unlikely to win that role this season, but fans should be optimistic that he could earn a lot more playing time next year.
Vote below with where you think Vonleh will end up on the depth chart to start next season.