Long before the 2013-14 college hoops season tipped off, America was keenly aware of exhilarating NBA draft prospects such as Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle. Studs like Marcus Smart, Dante Exum and Aaron Gordon were also on everyone's radar as prime top-10 candidates.
Make room for another top-10 lock.
Indiana Hoosiers freshman Noah Vonleh has quickly made a huge impression during his first few collegiate games, as the 6'9" forward's value has skyrocketed in a matter of weeks.
Prior to the season, we weren't sure if his stock would be strong enough to warrant one-and-done status. But by early December, Vonleh has notched six double-doubles and launched himself into the lottery discussion.
What makes him such an attractive prospect for NBA scouts? Let's break down why his talents could greatly impact the Association.
Improved Physical Tools
We knew Vonleh had remarkable length (a 7'4" wingspan to go along with his 6'9" height), but he turned out to be more of a physical specimen this season than anticipated.
Over the summer, the Massachusetts native impressively added 25 pounds of muscle, according to Jordan Littman of Indiana's InsideTheHall.com.
Last spring, he was a relatively slender McDonald's All-American sitting in the shadows of his much-heralded peers. A half-year later, he's an imposing presence in the paint, routinely collecting 10-plus boards.
When you see him up close in person, his long 240-pound frame screams "NBA." But while his physique may be expansive, when it comes to athleticism, no one will confuse him with Wiggins. Vonleh does not possess lightning-quick foot speed or outstanding leaping ability.
However, he moves quite fluidly for someone his size, which makes him a great candidate to bounce between power forward and small forward when he turns pro. Vonleh's mobility, 8'10" standing reach and enhanced strength make him far more intriguing than your average first-rounder.
Offensive Instincts and Paint Presence
As an 18-year-old competing in his first handful of college games, Vonleh has exhibited a highly effective approach in the post, utilizing the kind of moves and assertiveness scouts love.
Firstly, he's feasting on the boards. He demonstrates a great nose for the ball and a willingness to battle all game to earn the Hoosiers extra possessions. Through eight games, he's leading all freshmen in the country with 18 rebounds per 40 minutes (including 5.7 offensive boards).
During offensive sets, Vonleh is working hard away from the ball—something that's critical for the next level. When he receives the ball, he's making decisive moves to the bucket, drawing contact and attempting 13.7 free throws per 40 minutes.
And he's not just catching and turning to the hoop. He's using fakes and footwork to keep opponents off-balance:
All these attributes will empower Vonleh in the pros. He'll be able to take advantage of mismatches when he catches at the high post or on the block, and he'll thrive on the glass whether he's a 3 or 4.
Promising Wing Skills
Vonleh might be a big man for the Hoosiers, but combo-forward compatibility and versatility is in his NBA future.
He can handle the ball well for his size, and with a couple more years of skill development and confidence on the perimeter, he could be a dangerous slasher and facilitator.
As a jump-shooter, he owns a smooth stroke, although his release could be higher. He doesn't shoot deep balls too often during games, but in warm-ups, he deftly drills 15-20 footers.
Remember, he's only 18 years old. Imagine what these foundational tools will look like three to four years from now and it's easy to see why he could be a star. His mix of size and dexterity will enable him to serve as an interchangeable weapon in the frontcourt.
Sure, there are some game-day adjustments Vonleh must make, such as being vocal, demanding the ball and avoiding foul trouble. Those are points of concern that must be addressed as he aims for NBA-readiness.
The good news is that he's one of the hardest workers you'll find. His discipline as a student-athlete will help him become an easily coachable rookie once he jumps to the Association.
Don't take my word for it; ask coach Tom Crean.
Noah Vonleh has an uncommon desire to add things and work at a quick and fast pace constantly. A McDonalds AA with no entitlement issues.— Tom Crean (@TomCrean) June 3, 2013
It's readily apparent that Vonleh has a humble head on his shoulders, and he has the focused demeanor required to navigate the hoopla surrounding hot draft prospects.
NBA Outlook: The Draft and Beyond
Based on his physical tools and astronomical upside, Noah Vonleh will get looks from several clubs picking in the top 10.
Once the landmark prospects get scooped up, it won't be long before he hears his name called, and he'll be off the board by the time the picks hit double-digits.
Vonleh will still be developing in several areas as he enters the NBA, so he might be a mini-project. However, his coach will be able to insert him as an impact role player due to his rebounding prowess and mobility in the open floor.
In a three- to five-year window, he could be one of the most useful and productive forwards in the game, performing as an outright star. He has the wherewithal to pile up points, rebounds, assists and shooting efficiency.
Wiggins, Parker and Co. are certainly worth all the fanfare and attention. But make sure to allot some time to watch Indiana's freshman sensation as he blossoms into an elite prospect.
Dan O'Brien covers the NBA Draft for B/R.
Follow him on Twitter: @DanielO_BR