Photo / Bruce Ely

Vonleh's Preseason Confidence Carries Over to Perfect Opening Night

by Cody Sharrett

Two years removed from being a lottery pick, Trail Blazers fans are now getting a glimpse of what forward Noah Vonleh brings to Rip City. 

In the opening game of the 2016-17 NBA season, the Blazers forward accomplished something he only did twice in 78 games a year ago: record double-figures. The 21-year-old shot a perfect 5-for-5 from the field, including a three-pointer, to score 11 points in 16 minutes off the bench en route to the Blazers' NBA-record 16th straight victory in a home opener as Portland topped the Utah Jazz, 113-104, at Moda Center Tuesday night.

"It’s easy to look at his 5-for-5 and he’s making shots but I thought defensively he was okay," head coach Terry Stotts said. "Rebounding, he didn’t get a lot of rebounds but rebounding wasn’t a problem tonight. It was a good performance.”

Though Vonleh started 56 games last season, his first year in Portland after a rookie campaign with the Charlotte Hornets, the Indiana University product went trough several growing pains as he adjusted to a new city and new team, averaging just 3.6 points and 3.9 rebounds per game. After what he called a personally "disappointing" Summer League performance in Las Vegas, Vonleh sought a new approach to his game ahead of his third season as a pro. 

The New England native spent time in Los Angeles on the campus of UCLA training with the likes of Oklahoma City Thunder guards Russell Westbrook and Victor Oladipo, as well as Houston Rockets forward Trevor Ariza. While he's known around the Blazer locker room for his relentless work ethic, what emerged in Training Camp and preseason was a more confident, assertive Vonleh -- not to mention an afro and, on occasion, braids.

The reinvigorated Vonleh averaged 19.7 points and 19.7 rebounds per 48 minutes in exhibition play, highlighted by a 14-point, 14-rebound effort in his preseason debut to lift the Blazers to victory over the Phoenix Suns earlier in October. Vonleh continued more of the same Tuesday night.

"I’d been thinking over the summer of how I can come with a new approach in the season," Vonleh said. 

He elaborated: "I’ve gotta do something great out there every game to try to help my team win. Normally, it’s rebounding but tonight I was hot shooting the ball. I feel like the rest of the season, I’ve just gotta get back to rebounding around the rim more. There wasn’t too many rebounds out there tonight to go after."

Vonleh's new mindset is not lost on his teammates, who've noticed the change in the youngest player on the Blazers roster. 

"Noah’s name is one that might get lost when you talk about [bench production]," point guard Damian Lillard said. "Me and him, we talk and joke around all the time, it’s time for him come in and have that attitude like ‘I have a big role on this team.’

Added big man Ed Davis: "He had a good training camp and obviously he works hard, but I think he’s just in an ‘I don’t care’ mode now. ‘I’m just gonna play, I’m not gonna think.’ Last year, he was thinking a lot. Everybody know Noah, he’s one of the most skilled players on this team. He has a lot of stuff. He’s making things easy on himself taking open shots, not trying to do too much. Obviously, he’s showing y’all, but we know what he can do. He kills guys in practice — not me — but he gives guys the business."

For Vonleh, yes there's less thinking, but the 6-10, 240 lb. forward is keeping everything in check this early in the season -- even with the confidence of his fourth-year option having been exercised earlier in the week. 

"This is just one game of the season," he said.

"We’ve still got 81 more."


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