Noah Vonleh, Mr. Double/Double
Vonleh is averaging 10.7 points and 12 rebounds the last three games
Noah Vonleh quietly, which is how he seems to go about everything, has become a virtual double/double machine since getting regular playing time recently with the Bulls. The former Portland Trailblazer and Charlotte Hornet who quietly was acquired by the Bulls at the February trade deadline in the wake of the big Nikola Mirotic deal quietly is averaging 9.9 points and 10 rebounds the last seven games with his first significant playing time.
"It's tough getting traded in the middle of the season," Vonleh acknowledges. "But as we all know, it's a business. I came here with like 30 game left. I knew there was going to be a lot of opportunity here, so that was the main thing, come in here and be ready to play."
The 6-9, 245 pounder has done his part with some of the team's most consistent play the last month, and especially recently with increased playing time.
Vonleh is averaging 10.7 points and 12 rebounds the last three games and 10.3 points and 9.3 rebounds in his four starts for the Bulls.
"He inhales rebounds," admires Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg about the player who measured one of the largest hands ever during NBA combine physicals when he was selected ninth in the 2014 draft.
Vonleh probably will return to the bench Sunday when the Bulls play the Washington Wizards 2:30 p.m. in the United Center. Lauri Markkanen is expected to start again at power forward, though Markkanen continues to fight off various ailments, including a back problem, a sore elbow from the Houston game and a thumb problem from Friday's win in Orlando.
"It's been a rough stretch," Markkanen admitted. "(Friday) was my thumb. You can tell it's been a long season."
If Markkanen needs another day with the quick turnaround, Vonleh likely will be ready.
And perhaps as much as any in the NBA, the 22-year-old already in his fourth NBA season also is perhaps the exemplar for the questionable fate of the more quiet player who chooses the so called one-and-done route. Which is also why this last two months stretch is crucial for both Vonleh and the Bulls to make some decisions.
"I feel I can bring some toughness, bring some energy and my defensive ability to be able to switch onto guards and bigger guys," said Vonleh. "With the guys on the floor, I'm getting comfortable. It was a quick transition coming here from Portland. I had to adjust to things quickly on the fly. The coaching staff, the players welcomed me and as I get more comfortable, I get more confident in my game and everything starts to open up. I go out there and rebound, score a little bit, play hard and just try to showcase myself as I am entering free agency this off season."
Ah, yes, free agency.
Vonleh will be a restricted free agent, which means the Bulls have the right to match an offer. He's not likely to be in great demand with such a modest first four years in the NBA, averaging 4.2 points and 4.7 rebounds for his career.
Vonleh was a lottery pick, No. 9 by the Hornets in 2014, though immediately labeled a project as the second youngest player in the draft at 18 years old. He played one season at Indiana U.
So Vonleh likely would not have gone that much higher in the draft had he stayed in school. And he is making $3.5 million this season. His salary for next season is $4.7 million if the Bulls wanted to pick up his option assuming he doesn't get other offers.
Vonleh is trying to show he's not a journeyman backup forward. The Bulls are trying to determine whether he is or not, and whether they need another given Bobby Portis is earning a place in that role.
But what might Vonleh's future have looked like if he stayed in college and now was coming into the NBA as an experienced big man with a more sophisticated and developed game? Could that have meant a more significant future? Sure, Vonleh probably has grossed about $10 million before taxes thus far. So it's difficult to suggest anyone ignore that. Still, what's the career earning power of a more mature player? Which also usually means being a player in whom a team likely has a stronger commitment.
The gap between NBA success and the G-league or overseas, especially for other than the star players, can often be the difference between embraced and not getting the right chance.
"Charlotte, they were a playoff team and I was a lottery pick, so it was tough," said Vonleh. "They had their team set and brought in more veteran guys to help them get back to the playoffs, so that was tough. Being in Portland, a playoff team, is tough for young guys because when you are on a team like that you make mistakes, you are coming out quick. Over here, I can play through mistakes and be better as a player. For me, it's more opportunity here. The team is going through a losing phase right now, so it opens up more time."
Vonleh was one of those kids the pros describe as raw prospects, projects, perhaps worth a look for development with the top talent in the draft taken. So make a wager on the future. But then coaches with their jobs ticking down don't have time for projects. So when Vonleh came to Charlotte as an 18-year-old, the Big 10 leading freshman on a bad Indiana team, Charlotte coach Steve Clifford immediately declared Vonleh wasn't ready for the NBA and wouldn't be playing much. Once Vonleh missed training camp with a sports hernia, that season was done. Happy 19th birthday. You're an NBA veteran and on there market.
Charlotte shipped him off to Portland after the season for Nicolas Batum in what Portland believed was a rebuilding. LaMarcus Aldridge was signaling he was leaving, so Portland took a look at Vonleh as the eventual replacement. Aldridge did sign with the San Antonio Spurs that summer and Vonleh did become a starter.
But at 19 he wasn't really ready with a team better than expected, going to the Western Conference semifinals. They didn't have time to teach, either.
Vonleh was projected in high school as a possible wing player. But he has grown in the modern era into a tweener.
A tweener used to be a player between positions, i.e., too small for power forward and too slow for small forward. Now it's a player like Vonleh, who doesn't shoot enough threes for power forward and is a bit too small for center.
The Trailblazers began to use Al-Farouq Aminu as the distance shooting forward with Ed Davis the bigger forward and then drafted Zach Collins last summer. Then Portland needed to move someone to get out of the luxury tax. Vonleh kept falling between the bigs. Vonleh has a competent three-point shot, but obviously has been hesitant to use it given his nature as an inside big man. He's not particularly explosive, though he moves well. He's got an amazing 7-4 wingspan and good size at maybe 250 pounds. In this NBA era, he may be better suited for center.
Could he have developed more by staying in school? Would he then have been a top five pick and a player to whom a team would be more committed? There's talk in this coming draft of a big man like Texas' Mohamed Bamba a top five pick. Vonleh certainly seems far better now.
For the Bulls, Vonleh duplicates a lot of the skills of Portis. But he is productive, and he looks like he also could play center with more offense than Cristiano Felicio. He remains on tryout for another two weeks. Though not everyone can get a double/double in just about every NBA game, as he's been doing.
"Going to Portland there was opportunity," Vonleh agreed. "We were supposed to be going through a rebuilding phase, but we end up making the playoffs two years in a row. Things changed.
"This is a young Bulls team," noted Vonleh. "I'm definitely learning the NBA game, getting more comfortable, especially being around a young team. I cam play through mistakes and get more comfortable game after game. I'm 22 years old. Most of the guys are around my age. We can definitely build something special here."
Both Vonleh and the Bulls are trying to determine whether he should be part of the foundation.
Got a question for Sam?
Submit your question to Sam at firstname.lastname@example.org
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.