There are plenty more well-known players. Plenty who will be counted on for more contributions for this year’s team.
But Portland Trail Blazers 20-year-old forward Noah Vonleh is the player most symbolic of this rebuilding effort.
The Blazers, for the most part, are raw, full of potential but unproven.
Vonleh isn’t a name that catches the attention of many outside of the league. Even among the team’s acquisitions this season, his name probably ranks towards the bottom in name recognition.
But that’s the Blazers now. Outside of Damian Lillard, they’re low on the name-recognition scale, while they are hopeful their talent-both homegrown and brought in this summer-can be nurtured to become relevant in the West again.
As Neil Olshey said, the Blazers are playing the futures game. Their investment in Vonleh was their most costly speculation, at the price of Nicolas Batum.
The Blazers have plenty of players that have put in the time with the organization that have patiently waited for, and earned their turn to be featured players.
But both because of the cost involved and his potential, Vonleh is the guy you want to keep a closer eye on.
In Charlotte, an injury cost Vonleh his first pro training camp. The team pursued a low playoff spot at the expense of developing young players. He played only 25 games.
“It was hard to get a rhythm in Charlotte because I had a couple of veterans in front of me,” Vonleh said. “Coach was trying to find some playing time for me. It wasn’t there because those guys were in training camp, they’ve been in the league for a while.”
The playoffs are a stated goal for this team, but it appears that after getting consistent minutes in every preseason outing, the goal will not get in the way of Vonleh’s development.
The Blazers also likely have too much talent, barring injuries, to tank their way to a top-five draft pick, making Vonleh’s development even more important.
Vonleh was a star for the Blazers in the Las Vegas Summer League.
“Summer League was definitely a big confidence booster,” Vonleh said. “Seeing that improvement definitely helped me out.”
Vonleh carries a tantalizing combination of explosiveness, strength, mobility, length, shooting and ball-handling that aren’t usually seen in players that are 6-foot-10, 240 pounds with a 7-4 wingspan.
With 25 pro games under his belt, one season of college hoops where he didn’t make the NCAA’s or even the NIT, nobody knows much about him.
One thing has emerged though: nothing with Vonleh comes from lack of effort.
“I think the thing that has stood out to me the most about Noah is really what a willing and attentive learner he is,” head coach Terry Stotts said. “He really is a hard working player. He works well with all the coaches. And we’re working on everything, inside, outside, offense and defense, ball-handling, learning the NBA game.
Stotts continued: “I don’t want to take away last year, but in some ways, it’s his rookie year.”
Vonleh has the skills to do everything, but as is usually a recipe for success in the NBA, he’s starting small.
“I see myself as a rebounder, I just have to go in there and rebound,” he said. “That opens up my whole game. I can score a little bit and do different things. But (rebounding) makes me really confident I can do those things.”
Vonleh has averaged eight rebounds per game in the preseason and was third in the league in offensive rebounds per game behind Brooklyn’s Thomas Robinson and Detroit’s Andre Drummond.
There have been stumbles and there will be more, which is the cost of development.
Along with the rebounding, Vonleh may also already be the best screener on the team, a valuable skill that becomes even more valuable alongside a pick-and-roll player of Lillard’s caliber.
“He takes up so much space,” Lillard said.
Regardless of his role in the short-term, it’s clear that Vonleh and this new iteration of the Blazers go hand-in-hand.
“This definitely feels like home,” Vonleh said. “We got a bunch of young guys, guys that didn’t have the opportunity in the places they were at. Everybody has to stay focused and they can definitely try to make a name for themselves and bring the name back for this franchise, as we try to rebuild.”