Traded to Chicago on Thursday as a salary dump by the Portland Trail Blazers, can Bulls fans expect 22-year-old power forward Noah Vonleh to be anything more than Omer Asik’s small-talk buddy at the end of the bench?
A one-and-done at Indiana University after the 2013-2014 season, the Charlotte Hornets selected him with the ninth overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft. After an underwhelming season in Charlotte that included a sports hernia surgery, the Hornets traded him to the Portland Trail Blazers to acquire Nic Batum. In Portland across three seasons, Vonleh’s averged 3.9 points and 4.6 rebounds in limited playing time.
ESPN announcer Dan Dakich offered his analysis to Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune in a recent article.
Great body. Strong as hell but doesn’t necessarily play strong as hell. More of a pick-and-pop kind of a guy. Still young. Great kid. I don’t know that he’s a franchise guy (in the NBA), but there’s a big upside. He is a talented guy and he can shoot the basketball.
That big upside Dakich eludes to hasn’t materialized just yet, as Vonleh hasn’t been able to find his niche in the NBA through three and a half NBA seasons.
Now with his third team in three and a half seasons, what can the Bulls expect from Vonleh?
He can shoot...kind of....
Noah Vonleh isn’t as bad of a shooter as you might think.
This season, he’s shot the ball 55.6 percent from 10-16 feet and 41.7 percent from 16 feet to the 3-point line with 34 percent of his shot attempts coming from one of these two ranges. In his previous three seasons, he’s shot 13, 22, and 19 percent of his shots respectively from 10 feet from the basket to the 3-point line so there’s been an emphasis this season to widen out his shooting range.
Ideally, you’d like to see him stretch the floor with his outside shooting a bit more, but in a smallish (but statistically significant) sample size Vonleh has flashed some skills as a shooter.
Also boosting his shooting resume is a 74.2 percent shooting percentage from the free-throw line which is a few ticks below league average (76.8), but not catastrophic by big man standards.
Regardless, Vonleh has made strides with his shooting during his four-year NBA career. His true-shooting percentage has risen from around 47 percent his first two seasons in the NBA, to 52 percent last season to 54 percent this season. His old coach at Indiana Tom Crean is confident that he has the requisite shooting skills to thrive as a modern big man in the NBA.
Crean said Hoiberg’s offense often features “bigs that can shoot, and Noah Vonleh can shoot the ball, no doubt about that.”
“He has a big (245-pound), strong body, he can play at the rim and can pick and pop and space the floor,” Crean said. “I think they will be surprised with that.”
In a “small ball” lineup (I use quotations because he stands at 6-foot-10 inches, Bobby Portis is 6-foot-11-inches, and Lauri Markkanen is a 7-footer), combining him with the 3-point shooting of Markkanen or Portis could offset Vonleh’s lack of deep shooting range.
However, that scenario lacks a true center, and if the Bulls want to put him in his more natural power forward position, combining him with either Cristiano Felicio or Robin Lopez would create spacing issues.
Vonleh isn’t going to be the focal point of any offense. He has a career NBA usage percentage of 13.2 percent, and even in college that measure was only 21.4 percent.
However, Vonleh excels on the boards. He’s gobbling up 19.3 percent of the available rebounds when he is on the floor (29.9 percent on the defensive end and 8.3 percent on the offensive end).
Per 48 minutes, he averages 16.8 rebounds per game which is the 13th highest mark in the NBA. Vonleh’s presence could further boost a Bulls team that is already eighth in the NBA in rebounds per game (44.7).
At 6-foot-10 inches and a solid 240 pounds with a 7-foot-3-inch wingspan and massive hands, Vonleh has everything you want in a big man from a physical standpoint.
But, he hasn’t been able to harness his outstanding physical tools and athleticism into playing solid basketball with any consistency. He’s turned the ball over on 14.8 percent of his possession during his NBA career, he’s averaged 4.2 fouls per 32 minutes during his career, and he doesn’t have a particularly sharpened basketball IQ in terms of knowing where he needs to be defensively.
But one thing he can do, is really dunk.
Where’s the Playing Time though?
From this trade, the Bulls essentially received a free two-month look at Vonleh who will become a restricted free agent after this season. But it could just be two months of watching Vonleh sit on the bench.
It’s difficult to envision a scenario outside of an injury where he’d supplant either Markkanen or Portis on the depth chart at his more natural power forward position. At center, he’s not taking over Lopez’s starting spot and perhaps the Bulls are better served to give Felicio most of the backup minutes because they have invested in him until 2021.
As Stephen Noh tactfully pointed out in a recent article for The Athletic, the trade that shipped Vonleh over to Chicago was a practically free maneuver given the cash received. If Vonleh pans out and the Bulls do decide to pick up his $4.7 million qualifying offer this summer, that’d be a positive, but unintended, consequence of the trade.