By Cody Sharrett-Noah Vonleh’s second season in Portland can be dissected in two segments: ‘pre-Nurk’ and ‘with-Nurk.’
In his 47 games prior to center Jusuf Nurkić joining the Trail Blazers in a trade with Denver before the mid-February trade deadline, Vonleh averaged just 3.3 points and 4.1 rebounds in 13 minutes per game. Just as the Bosnian injected life into the Blazers and Rip City as a whole, Vonleh seemed to thrive next to Nurkić, averaging 6.7 points on 57.5% shooting and 7.2 rebounds in the final 26 games of the season. The former lottery pick recorded four of his five career double-doubles in that span, and netted his first game-winner as the Portland topped the San Antonio Spurs at the buzzer on April 10.
While his scoring and rebounding improved with Nurkić, he also evolved into a capable defender as the season progressed. Perhaps Vonleh’s biggest endorsement came from president of basketball operations Neil Olshey at the team’s exit interviews at the end of the season.
“I don’t know if it was skillset as much as confidence,” Olshey said of Vonleh’s improvement. “He was really good when he played with Nurk, I mean really good. I think the thing that was really exciting for us is that if you watch that [Golden State] series and his ability to switch pick-and-roll, he kept Steph in front of him as well as anybody did out on an island. His rebounding went up; he was more aggressive.
“There’s still a lot of work to do with his offensive game so that he’s not just a dunker-spot-finish-rebounder-type guy, but he’s 21 years old.”
Going forward, Vonleh hopes to show he is, in fact, more than a dunker. While exactly one-third of his field goals in 2016-17 came via the dunk, Vonleh wants to get back to spacing the floor and developing his midrange jumper. The New England native shot 48.5% from three-point range in college during his one season at Indiana.
Just get back to shooting that midrange and working on my shooting, being able to space the floor more,” Vonleh said. “I feel like I wasn’t as consistent, didn’t get too much of an opportunity to showcase that too much this year.”
Soft-spoken and still just 21 years old, Olshey would like to see a ‘mean streak’ in the 6-10, 245 lb. big man next season.
“There isn’t a nicer human being on our team, and he’s gotta differentiate between being that guy in the locker room and with staff, being around the media and everybody else,” Olshey said of the mild-mannered Vonleh. “I gave him examples: Elton Brand is one of the most wonderful men I’ve had the privilege to be around. I coached him, I was in the front office with him, he played with a smile on his face and everybody liked him, but guys walked away rubbing their arm or their back [in pain] or picking themselves up off the floor whenever they went at Elton in the post.
“I think that’s the jump for Noah is to understand he’s a really good screener; he’s a physical offensive player, but he’s gotta understand when he’s gotta have a little bit of a mean streak to him and be more of a presence in the lane where guys realize they’re gonna have to deal with him when they get there.”