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Welcome to part 2 of the inaugural edition of Hoosiers In The NBA! If you missed part 1, which detailed how the 2015 NBA Draft affected teams that currently have former Hoosiers on the roster, you can click here to read about it. Unlike prior editions this one will be structured a little bit differently than usual as we are only focusing on one Hoosier, Noah Vonleh. These will take a more traditional column approach and will be announced ahead of time usually on my regular Monday column. Without further ado, let’s dive into Vonleh’s new situation and try gauge how it will work out:
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was written Wednesday night so a couple of things have changed since then, such as some players having signed with other teams.)
Things in Portland are in flux. After two seasons of being legit title contenders in the brutal western conference, the Trail Blazers might be thinking that their window has closed at least for their current group of players. The trade that brought Vonleh to Portland, and sent Nicolas Batum to the Charlotte Hornets, was the first domino. Now with LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez, and Arron Afflalo all free agents and all garnering interest from other teams, there is a real possibility that next season’s Blazers will be radically different from the team of the past two seasons.
Now could some or maybe all of them return to Rip City? Probably unlikely considering the moves the Blazers have or are on the verge of making. In addition to trading for Vonleh, the Blazers have also acquired Gerald Henderson (part of the same trade as Vonleh), Mason Plumlee and Pat Connaughton via trade. They’ve also already signed small forward Al-Farouq Aminu to a four-year $30 million contract. Add in the fact that Portland is close to giving their young and promising point guard Damian Lillard the max contract and it’s quite easy to see that the Blazers are looking to the future.
All of this sounds really promising for Vonleh, who is looking for a chance to bounce back after a lost rookie season. Vonleh spent most of last year sitting at the end of the bench, only getting to see the court if the game was a blowout. Hornets Coach Steve Clifford called Vonleh “too raw” to be on the court. Yet his most-developed skills (rebounding and three-point shooting) were so valuable that the Hornets had to have him on the roster when their big men started getting injured one after another. I know at times last season it sounded like I was criticizing the Hornets for their usage of Vonleh but the reality is they were forced due to unfortunate circumstances. If Al Jefferson, Marvin Williams, and Cody Zeller never got injured, Vonleh would have played 30 minutes a night in the NBA D-League getting valuable playing time and developing his in-game skills. Sometimes you’re drafted into the wrong situation and what you need is a do-over. Portland is Vonleh’s do-over.
What’s most exciting about Vonleh being a Blazer is him partnering up with Lillard in the pick-and-roll game. Lillard is an awesome pick-and-roll ball-handler, being able to drive and shoot threes at a high level. This versatility matches Vonleh’s, who has a decent post game and a developing jump shot. Lillard’s also able to accurately find the screener while drawing in two defenders, making Vonleh’s three-point attempts become uncontested or his layup attempts easy buckets. Vonleh could also form a good inside-out combo with Plumlee down on the block. One switch on the baseline and Vonleh has a slow-footed center trying to close out on three-point attempt or Plumlee can bully a smaller defender to the basket.
However, while the path to the starting power forward position looks clear now, there are many obstacles ahead and by the time the season starts we may see Vonleh as the backup. If there is one free agent from the four I listed that Portland really wants to return, it’s Aldridge. Not only do they want Aldridge back, they want to pair him with free agent Greg Monroe. Monroe visited the Blazers Wednesday and by all accounts the meeting went well. General Manager Neil Olshey’s plan seems to be a front court of Monroe and Aldridge with Plumlee and Vonleh as their respective backups. Honestly, if Vonleh has to play backup this season it might be for the best. Vonleh will be just 20 years-old by the start of the season, and getting to learn behind Aldridge and/or Monroe could be called a best-case scenario.
The problem is the potential logjam in the front court if this happens, particularly Meyers Leonard. Leonard, who will be entering his fourth year removed from Illinois, is also a former lottery pick who has slowly developed his game and has become a serviceable backup big man. Fairly similar to the situation in Charlotte when Clifford had to decide between Vonleh and Zeller, Blazers Head Coach Terry Stotts will potentially have to decide between Vonleh’s upside and Lenoard’s stableness.
Overall I think being traded to Portland was really good for Vonleh. Sure there may be potential obstacles but Vonleh will love playing under Stotts, who loves to have his players constantly moving around. Add in the fact that he and Lillard make an excellent pick-and-roll combo and the sky is the limit for Vonleh as he is now in a situation that can showcase his true talent.