When the Portland Trail Blazers acquired then-19-year-old Noah Vonleh from the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for the French-born Swiss Army Knife that is Nicolas Batum, many in Rip City were expecting the worst during the rest of the offseason. Cue the LaMarcus Aldridge escapades.
Even those who were high on Vonleh, including myself, expected that he’d be a multi-year project before he could become a meaningful member of a winning team. Meyers Leonard started the season as the Trail Blazers’ starting power forward with Ed Davis getting some meaningful minutes off the bench.
The season didn’t start out pretty for Leonard, who struggled to make a big impact on the court. Bad turned worse when Leonard was forced to miss time with a shoulder injury. With Davis listed as the team’s starting power forward, Noah Vonleh was a surprise start against his former team when Portland took on Charlotte.
The young power forward out of Indiana should still be considered a project and is nowhere near his ceiling potential. With that said, you should not expect coach Terry Stotts to take him out of the starting rotation any time soon.
If you’ve known about Vonleh, you know that he has future all-star written all over him. He’s an extremely raw talent who will get all the support needed to develop in what has been considered a ‘development’ year for a young Trail Blazers squad. Stotts’ trust in Vonleh is promising and should be recognized as a great coaching move by a great coach.
Is Ed Davis worthy of the starting spot? You betcha. Davis has been an absolute beast for the Trail Blazers this season, getting the dirty work done for Rip City night in, night out. What’s encouraging is that he seems to be content with a bench role, albeit one that is seeing 22.4 minutes per game.
Davis has been a dominate player for Portland, averaging 7.8 rebounds per game, good for second most on the team. Better yet, he leads the league in most double-doubles off the bench.
Most impressively, Davis leads the NBA in the individual offensive rating category, ahead of second place Stephen Curry and third place Kevin Durant.
In the words of basketball stat guru Dean Oliver, “individual offensive rating is the number of points produced by a player per hundred total individual possessions.” In other words, Ed Davis is currently the most reliable scorer in the NBA.
So why is it that Noah Vonleh continues to start for the Trail Blazers? He’s averaging 3 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.2 personal fouls in 17.6 minutes over his last five games; that can’t be why. Is it purely because Stotts wants to develop Vonleh in a so-called ‘throwaway’ year? Maybe a part of the reason, but there’s more.
Vonleh has become an every game starting power forward because he fits the style of basketball that Stotts wants to play. To elaborate, his defensive effort & humble desire to learn and get better is exactly what the doctor ordered.
“He’s agile, he moves his feet well,” Stotts said. “He really works hard at doing everything right. He’s really attentive to what our coverages are, he talks out there and he’s not consumed with touches and scoring and everything.”
Though the backcourt tandem of Damian Lillard & C.J. McCollum has been a treat to watch on offense, the Trail Blazers have struggled to find success on the defensive end.
Ranked 22nd in the NBA in team defensive rating, a number derived from points allowed per 100 possessions, the Blazers have
actually improved in recent weeks thanks to the starting lineup addition of Vonleh. With the former Hoosier starting, Portland has had a defensive rating that ranks around 16th in the league. Without him, the Trail Blazers fall to around 25th.
A big reason for this huge defensive presence is the aforementioned style of basketball that Vonleh brings to the court. He’s a prototype power forward who has the length and strength to grab boards and
disrupt opposing scoring opportunities in the paint while possessing the agility and footwork to pressure perimeter shooters.
6-foot-10-inches with a 7-foot-4-inch wingspan, 240 pounds while being quick on your feet, and only 20-years-old; those are some outstanding measurements for a premier raw NBA talent.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for Noah to play with the starters,” Stotts said. “He can just go out there and defend and rebound and blend in, knowing that Dame and C.J. are out there or Mason… It’s a good way for a young player to get good experience.”