(Written by Chris Parette)
When Noah Vonleh fell to the Hornets at the 9th pick in the 2014 NBA draft, it came as a surprise to the organization. Vonleh had averaged 11.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 26.5 minutes per game as a freshman at Indiana and was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. He had been projected to go much higher in the draft, as high as 5th in ESPN Draft Analyst Chad Ford’s final mock draft. GM Rich Cho and Head Coach Steve Clifford have multiple times expressed about how happy they were to have the 6-10, 240 pound 19 year old fall to them. In a post draft press conference, Cho said that Vonleh has “a unique game because he’s a big man that can play inside and out, he can post up, he can shoot from outside, he’s got a perimeter game, he can hit the occasional 3 … He’s also a very, very good ball-handler for his size.” Vonleh did shoot 48% from 3, but he only attempted 33 of them, so it is a relatively small sample size.
So obviously he has the size and skill that you would desire out of a top-10 pick, but what can we expect of him in 2014? Quite frankly, I don’t see a lot of playing time for him. Coach Clifford has already stated that new addition Marvin Williams will start at power forward, and that second year big man Cody Zeller will be the primary backup behind Williams. Zeller would also see a little playing time at backup center, so that eliminates many of those potential minutes for Vonleh. The Hornets frontcourt is deep. Al Jefferson is obviously the focal point offensively and will get his 35 minutes per game. Marvin and Cody will get most of the power forward minutes, not to mention Bismack Biyombo and newest Hornet Jason Maxiell, who was signed to an unguaranteed deal. Biyombo and Maxiell may not seem like huge threats to minutes, but with Biyombo’s contract running out and Clifford’s affection to veterans who play defense like Maxiell, Vonleh could be in trouble minutes wise.
To make matters worse for Vonleh, he suffered a sports hernia injury and had surgery in early September. It set him back 4-6 weeks, and he will most likely miss the first couple weeks of training camp, which will keep him behind the other big men.
I also find it interesting that the Charlotte front office, even after drafting Vonleh, really went hard at resigning Josh McRoberts. After missing on him, they brought in ten-year veteran Marvin Williams. This tells me that there wasn’t too much confidence in the Zeller-Vonleh duo to take over the power forward spot and really be effective. Now personally, I think this says more about the organizations feelings on Zeller. Not that they don’t believe in him, but at the moment they want a veteran who knows how to run an offense effectively; and even more importantly, space the floor with 3-point shooting. A crucial thing the Hornets lost in McRoberts is his playmaking ability. He was second in the NBA behind Chris Paul in Assist to Turnover Ratio. He was great at getting the offense in the right position and getting Big Al the ball in the right spots in the post, and he was very unselfish. He also was a 36% 3-point shooter, not incredible, but something the defense needed to respect. If Marvin Williams is unable to mesh well with Al and the rest of the offense for some reason, and if Vonleh is able to consistently knock down the NBA three (something Zeller hasn’t developed at this point), he may steal some more minutes from the others.
During the Vegas Summer League, Vonleh had his share of ups and downs. His offensive game left a little to be desired. He averaged 9.1 points per game, but only shot 28%, abysmal for a big man. Now Summer League shooting percentages can often be deceiving without a true offense being installed, but 28% isn’t good at all. This also included a 0-13 game against Golden State. Even though he shot poorly, he had many highlight worthy plays. You can already see he has good footwork and really good ball fakes, as you can see here:
The only problem was he wasn’t quite able to finish on a consistent basis. He could get to the rim and get his shot up, but he didn’t quite have the finishing touch to put the ball in the bucket. He also had a few 2013 Cody Zeller type moments where he seemed to be out of control and just throwing the ball at the rim:
He also showed some problems fouling too much. He played 27 minutes per game and averaged over 5.5 fouls in those games, including eight against Sacramento (you can’t foul out in Summer League). He also seemed to get overpowered at times by other big men. In the semi-final game against Houston, Rockets Center/Power forward Donatas Motiejunas had his way with Vonleh on multiple occasions and was easily able to back him down in the post. Only being 19, this is not a surprise that this happens against bigger and stronger NBA players. The same thing happened to Cody Zeller in 2013. This lack of power really eliminates Vonleh from being the primary backup center behind Big Al because most NBA centers would be able to push him around. A little time, a little better fundamentals, and some dedication in the weight room can easily fix this.
But on to the positives. Vonleh is one of those players who has a knack for rebounds. He doesn’t have the greatest vertical, but he has a skill for being in the right position for rebounds. Rebounding doesn’t necessarily mean being the best athlete and being able to out jump people. It comes down to wanting to get them and being in the right position to get them. A lot of good rebounders go to certain spots on the floor when shots come from certain places. For example, percentage wise, if someone takes a shot from the corner, there is a very low percent chance that the rebound will go to the free-throw line; therefore, trying to box someone out there would be a waste. Now of course there are exceptions to this rule, but as a rule, it is typically true. This is why you often see not the best athletes average a lot of rebounds, like Kevin Love, Joakim Noah, David Lee, and even Big Al. Vonleh seems to have this skill down, and his 10 rebounds per game in the Summer League is evidence to that. Not all of them were defensive rebounds either. He had 28 offensive rebounds over the seven game span.
Overall, I believe Noah Vonleh will be a key contributor to the future of the Charlotte Hornets. This year however, I don’t see him really making a huge impact as a rookie. He has a ton of potential to be a star, but as of now he is still very raw and needs some work to really see some impactful minutes on the floor. Sure there can be injuries where he is forced into action, but other than that, I can’t really see him playing more than twelve or so minutes per game over the course of the year.