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Vonleh, Trail Blazers both looking to take next step

With Portland's young core improving, versatile forward has potential to become key contributor in 2016-17

POSTED: Aug 8, 2016 2:38 PM ET

By Ian Thomsen

BY Ian Thomsen


At 6-foot-9, Noah Vonleh has proven to be a consistent rebounder while averaging 9.8 boards per 36 minutes.

First came the signing of free agent small forward Evan Turner, which will have the domino effect of converting Al-Farouq Aminu into the starting power forward. Portland also matched an expensive offer sheet to retain sixth man Allen Crabbe, signed backup center Festus Ezeli and traded for Shabazz Napier as a third point guard. Altogether the deep young Blazers grew deeper.

"It's going to be real competitive,'' says Noah Vonleh, who started 56 games for Portland as a 20-year-old power forward last season. "It's going to be a different year. If you're not ready to go, you're not going to play.''

Vonleh was referring to himself. He is hard on himself that way.

I won't settle for less. I'm going to keep trying, keep pushing until I get what I want.

– Blazers' Noah Vonleh

Last month at Summer League his coaches could see Vonleh reacting to the pressure to come through. He generated 12.0 points and 8.8 rebounds while averaging 31.5 minutes over four games, but he made only 3-for-13 from the 3-point line. He wanted more.

"I think there's been some frustration on his part this summer because he had high expectations for himself,'' says coach Terry Stotts. "But it's difficult to come in here and dominate a summer league. He's younger than a lot of guys who are in the lottery still. It's a challenge because when you're a young player, you want everything right now. It just takes time.''

But time is short, even for the No. 9 pick of the 2014 Draft. Especially for him: Vonleh is in no way counting on the potential of his promising future, knowing as he does that tomorrow is not a given. His efforts reflect that view. He works as if in a constant hurry.

'This year ... is about winning games'

The pressure began with the sports hernia that required surgery four weeks before his first NBA training camp in 2014 with the Charlotte Hornets, who had drafted Vonleh in hope that he would deepen their front line. His preseason injury set him back, and he played only 259 minutes as a rookie. Last summer, when the Hornets pursued a need for Nicolas Batum at small forward, the Blazers insisted on receiving Vonleh in the trade. Portland was going young after the loss of free agent LaMarcus Aldridge, and Vonleh (who arrived alongside Gerald Henderson) was the key part of the deal.

Batum helped Charlotte reach the playoffs for only the third time in a dozen seasons, and last month the Hornets resigned him to a five-year $120 million contract. In the meantime Vonleh -- who was making $2.6 million -- found a promising role in Portland, where Stotts found 15.1 minutes per game for him by elevating Vonleh into the starting lineup.

"Getting Noah playing time was a priority for the season,'' says Stotts, "and the best way to get him those minutes was with the starters.''

Vonleh made 78 appearances overall last season, but for 44 of those games he remained on the bench throughout the fourth quarter. The Blazers were transitioning surprisingly into a 44-win playoff team that took the defending champion Warriors to five games in the second round. In an ominous sign of their new standard, Vonleh was limited to 12 minutes throughout the postseason.

At 6-foot-9 and 240 pounds, Vonleh has proven to be a consistent rebounder while averaging 9.8 boards per 36 minutes over his first two NBA seasons. He is most promising defensively, with a strong lower body, a long 7-foot-4 wingspan and the second-largest pair of hands ever measured at the NBA combine. He shot 74.5 percent from the free-throw line last season and made 48.5 of his 3s as a freshman at Indiana. But he has yet to establish himself as a stretch power forward, based on his 23.9 3-point accuracy in his first season with Portland.

"Last year the mandate was player development and improvement,'' says Stotts. "This year, with the season we had, we've moved up a level. It's about winning games and competition for minutes on the court. No one is going to have minutes handed to them. Whatever decisions I make about playing time are going to be in the best interest of winning games.''

No. 21 for his cousin

Vonleh wears No. 21 for Portland because it was the number worn by his cousin. Salim Fort was 15 when he died while swimming with friends in a pond in Lynn, Mass., north of Boston. It was the summer of 2010.

"We were the same age, so I used to play against him in basketball tournaments,'' says Vonleh. "We used to hang out all the time. That was pretty tough, having him go.''

Before every game he prays and thinks of Salim.

He's one of those bigs like Draymond, the way he can get the rebound and bring the ball up the court. He has that type of skill set.

– Blazers' Damian Lillard on Vonleh

"When he went swimming, he had no idea he was going to drown and pass away,'' Vonleh says. "You never know when it's your time to go. Live every day to the fullest, enjoy life, always be happy. That was the main thing with him. He was always happy. He always put a smile on somebody's face. You've just got to enjoy life.''

The death of his young cousin would provide Vonleh with a mature point of view when he was traded. He was not crushed by inferences that the Hornets had given up on him. He saw it for what it was.

"It was a little bit of a shock, but at the end of the day a team's going to do what they want with you,'' he says. "It didn't really hurt me. It just motivated me a bit more. I've got to prove something, and I was able to start doing that this year. I showed a little of what I can do.''

His perspective is driven by the urgency to take advantage while he can. There is a humility to him -- a quiet understanding that he is owed nothing, that nothing is guaranteed, that he must seize the opportunity while it is within reach.

"I'm a real humble guy,'' he says. "No matter how high the success I'm having, I'm not going to let it go to my head. If I have a good game, it's one game. You're only as good as your last game. You have to come out every time and be ready to go.''

Damian Lillard, the All-Star leader of the Blazers, remembers meeting Vonleh at the practice facility after he had been traded last summer by Charlotte. "I came into the gym and he was on the court, and there were two Portland Trail Blazer t-shirts on the sideline and they were soaking wet,'' Lillard says. "The kid was sweating out his t-shirts three times already, and I sat there and watched him and he was working hard.

"Everything the coaches say to him, whether it's yelling at him or talking to him like I'm talking to you, he is receptive. He takes that information and he is coachable. There've been times in the game where I've yelled something to him loud, and he'll be like, 'OK, I got you.' He wants to be good.''

In the mold of Draymond

Will he become a star? It's too early for predictions, but a generalized hope is that Vonleh will channel the style of Draymond Green. He has the length, strength and agility to defend multiple positions, and the versatility -- based on his experiences as a point guard during his first two years of high school -- to make plays at the other end.

"If you look at him, you wouldn't think he's as athletic as he is,'' says Lillard. "He's one of those bigs like Draymond, the way he can get the rebound and bring the ball up the court. He has that type of skill set.''

"He became a very verbal defender,'' says Stotts of Vonleh's first season in Portland. "He was very talkative about pick-and-rolls and coverages. He's one of the best workers I've ever been around. He really wants to be good, he's really coachable, and he doesn't shy away from contact. He's competitive.''

Vonleh must feed on that ambition: He'll be competing in the frontcourt with Aminu and Ed Davis at power forward, in addition to the minutes to be apportioned among centers Mason Plumlee, Meyers Leonard and Ezeli. His qualities of humility and teamwork should be of help.

"He's one of the guys on this team that jokes around the most,'' says Lillard. "He ain't as quiet as you might think he is. But his demeanor is really quiet and chill. He's a good dude.''

Vonleh started drawing charges last month in Las Vegas. He has spent the summer developing his 3-point range as well as his game in the post and from midrange, which led to frustration that the benefits were not being realized.

"I'm not really happy with the way I played -- just missing a lot of shots that I worked on the past couple of months that I should've been making,'' says Vonleh of his showings in Las Vegas. "And sometimes I wasn't in the right spot defensively ... I'm just going to get back in the gym and have a big August working out.''

Is he too hard on himself?

"Some people say that,'' Vonleh says "But no, I think it's good that I'm that hard on myself. I won't settle for less. I'm going to keep trying, keep pushing until I get what I want.''

He can't be too demanding, he appears to believe, because his demands and efforts are based in optimism. He knows that nothing is promised, and yet there is an abiding faith in his dream. Someday, for better or for worse, he will be able to look back and see that he was making the best he could of these precious opportunities.

"It's going to be a fun training camp,'' Noah Vonleh says.

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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