Sporting a 7'4" wingspan, 240-pound frame and intriguing inside-out potential, Charlotte Hornets rookie Noah Vonleh is an exciting specimen. But his club should exercise abundant patience in the early going.
The 6'9" one-and-done power forward out of Indiana is ready to gobble up rebounds, and he covers a ton of ground and space with his mobility and length. He can score via baby hooks and outside jumpers, and he showed stretches of solid defense during summer league.
Don't confuse those promising qualities with immediate NBA success, though.
There's so much more to basketball than size, dunks and smooth shooting. Youngsters like Vonleh need to learn about shot selection, passing from the post, pick-and-roll nuances and defensive discipline. And that's just a small sampling of his homework.
Coach Steve Clifford and the Hornets staff shouldn't depend on him too heavily during their push for the playoffs, because he's simply not ready.
Vonleh isn't an egotistical person or a selfish player by any means, but he's still learning how to collaborate with his teammates on a possession-by-possession basis. He doesn't have a keen sense of when to be aggressive and when to dish the rock to open teammates.
"(Vonleh) has a long way to go in terms of feel and basketball IQ," explains Draft Express video analyst Mike Schmitz. "Doesn't have a great feel for when to shoot, attack or pass."
That's unsurprising to some degree. After all, he's only a year removed from high school. But even when you compare him to his fellow one-and-done 2014 draftees picked in the top 10, he's inferior in several key categories.
Note how he lags behind significantly in assists per 40 minutes and free-throw attempts per 40 minutes:
|2014 One & Done Prospects: Conference Per 40 Minutes|
|Wiggins vs. Big 12||21.6||7.6||2.2||8.4||3.0|
|Parker vs. ACC||23.2||12.9||1.1||8.7||3.1|
|Embiid vs. Big 12||19.0||14.5||2.3||8.6||4.7|
|Gordon vs. Pac-12||15.6||10.1||2.2||6.4||1.5|
|Randle vs. SEC||17.2||13.2||1.5||7.7||3.1|
|Vonleh vs. Big Ten||14.9||11.8||0.6||4.4||3.0|
When Vonleh catches the ball on the block or on the elbow, his diagnosis and decision-making are inconsistent. As Schmitz mentioned, the youngster has a difficult time quickly discerning what to do with the ball. He must learn to keep his head on a swivel and exhibit better court vision. That way, he'll launch timely attacks and also avoid unnecessary turnovers.
The following pair of plays illustrates his deficiencies. First, here's Vonleh with Indiana, catching the ball in the post with room to turn and finish an uncontested shot. Unfortunately, he never turns to look at the hoop, hastily tossing the ball back out to his Hoosier teammate in order to attempt a re-post:
That's a classic example of him missing out on an opportunity to assert himself. At the very worst, that play would have resulted in a late-arriving help defender fouling him.
Next, we have an example of the opposite misdiagnosis: In summer league play against the New York Knicks, Vonleh drove into the paint and found himself double-teamed. He opted to attempt an off-balance, contested shot when a couple Hornets were open:
Vonleh ended up making the shot, but he should think twice once he starts playing against big-league opponents. His scoring talent isn't quite good enough yet to compensate for mental mistakes.
The good news is that the basic tools are there. He has the talent to score in the paint with his left or right, shoot from the outside or face up his man and drive to the tin. He also could become a capable passer once he has time to grow comfortable in Charlotte's system. Once his knowledge and experience catch up with his physical skills, he'll be a top-tier stretch 4.
His less-than-refined instincts and poor choices extend to the defensive side as well. Vonleh averaged 4.1 fouls per 40 minutes in college, and he continued hacking away during summer league. He committed 8.2 fouls per 40 minutes, which is high even when you consider the coaches aren't worried about foul trouble (there's no foul limit in summer league).
In the post, he's actually a solid one-on-one defender, as he squares up his man and uses strength and size to deter shot attempts. But in help-defense scenarios, he's either out of position or uses bad judgement when contesting from the weak side.
Robert White of Prospect Next broke down the big fella's play in Vegas, and he noticed the defensive lapses on the glass and in half-court sets: "He would at times produce a lackadaisical effort in boxing out or free up his man in dangerous spots by chasing unrealistic help attempts."
It's going to take a combination of film work, practice repetitions and game experience for him to create good habits and put himself in better position. That might take some time, especially on Clifford's defense-oriented club.
If his help-side footwork gradually improves, he'll be much more efficient on that end and grow into an imposing defender.
It's easy for onlookers to demand better decision-making, as they desperately want him to make a big impact as soon as possible. But the truth is that it's not easy to fully grasp every sequence at the NBA level, especially amid the speed of the game.
Clifford knows this, so he'll feed Vonleh experience in moderate doses, as he explained to Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer.
"You’ve got to give (young players) time to grow and put them in situations where they can grow at the pace that works for them. We have to have Noah’s best interest and progress in mind...It’s not fair to throw him out there night after night against starters."
For some one-and-done power forwards (think Tristan Thompson or Zach Randolph) or international imports (think Serge Ibaka), it takes a couple years before they become a meaningful part of the rotation. Vonleh could enjoy a similar, gradual rise to prosperity in Charlotte.
Not only must the Hornets coaches practice patience as they nurture this newcomer, but the front office should avoid hastily judging their investment and fans should give him a couple years to develop.
Dan O'Brien covers the NBA and NBA draft for Bleacher Report.
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