PORTLAND — After injuries and some experimenting with lineups, a season where improvement has been hyped as the organization’s number one priority, one of the youngest Trail Blazers is making his way.
Before this season, if there was one new player that carried the most intrigue and mystery, it was 20-year old forward Noah Vonleh.
He was very quiet early on in the season, coming off the bench.
Meyers Leonard’s shoulder injury turned out to be the circumstance that the Blazers and Vonleh needed to find his place: the starting lineup.
“I think it’s a great opportunity for Noah to play with the starters,” head coach Terry Stotts said. “He can just go out there and defend and rebound and blend in. Knowing that Dame (Lillard) and CJ (McCollum) are out there or Mason (Plumlee) … it’s a good way for a young player to get good experience. Noah in the starting lineup has been very solid for us. We had a few rough starts but overall it’s been very good.”
Vonleh concurred, saying that he’s comfortable playing with the starting unit.
“I do what I do, rebound the ball, execute the offense, know all the plays,” Vonleh said. “Go out there, play hard and everything else falls into place for me.”
Perhaps a reflection of Vonleh’s growth, the starting lineup with him in it has only improved as the season has gone along. His defensive minded approach has been an excellent compliment to the scoring prowess of Portland’s starters.
“I think he’s getting more comfortable each night,” McCollum said. “Obviously it’s his first time getting starter’s minutes and playing a lot. It could be said about a lot of us. I think he’s adjusting and playing well and does a good job and listens. I think he’ll be just fine.”
Portland’s starting line-up of Lillard, McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu, Vonleh and Plumlee is now Portland’s most-used lineup by nearly a full game’s worth of minutes. That lineup is outscoring their opponents by 9.1 points per 100 possessions according to NBA.com.
The biggest change has been on the defensive end where the Blazers, who are currently ranked 24th out of 30 teams in points allowed per 100 possessions, have a defensive rating close to the league average with Vonleh in the starting lineup.
Vonleh brings the Blazers another dimension on the defensive end with the ability to stay with smaller players on the perimeter, the length to bother shots as well as energy and strength on the glass.
“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.”
It makes it easier for guards to have the confidence to switch in those situations, too.
“I think Noah’s a good young big who is able to guard all positions and is comfortable with switching on to guards,” McCollum said. “I think it stems from him playing a lot of basketball, him playing a lot of 1 on 1 with guards.”
Vonleh had probably his best game in Saturday’s loss to the New York Knicks. He did most of the work involved in containing New York’s rookie sensation Kristaps Porzingis to a 0-for-6 scoreless night with just three rebounds and two turnovers.
Vonleh also had a tip-slam, a pair of assists that came from showing great patience, a corner 3-pointer, two steals and only one turnover.
“He’s a super hard worker,” Ed Davis said. “Always in the gym, always trying to get better. He’s not playing big minutes right now. But when he’s in there for the first six minutes of the quarter he’s definitely producing and showing flashes.”
Vonleh is also finding his way outside of the context of the bright lights. He and rookies Cliff Alexander and Luis Montero have banded together to push each other as players in addition to bonding as friends.
In December, he’s had one of the team’s better on-court plus-minus ratings, ranking third on the team behind McCollum and Aminu with a 3.1 net rating according to NBA.com.
Stotts main concern is that the Blazers are performing well together rather than focusing on Vonleh’s individual play.
“It’s important that we play good basketball, making those 6-8 minutes productive as a group, not individually,” Stotts said.
Vonleh is in the lineup to stay, a lineup which is improving almost every night.
Davis doesn’t think Vonleh’s improvement will stop any time soon.
“When his minutes start to increase you’ll start to see more and more out of him,” he said.