It’s easy to point to the explosive scoring of Damian Lillard, the steady shooting of CJ McCollum and Allen Crabbe or the acquisition of center Jusuf Nurkić as the turning points in the Portland Trail Blazers’ 2016-17 season, flipping a team 11 games under .500 in February into the eight seed entering the 2017 Western Conference Playoffs thanks to a 17-6 record to finish the season. Around that same time, third-year forward Noah Vonleh emerged as a key ingredient in the Blazers’ success at both ends of the floor.
Averaging just 3.3 points and 4.1 rebounds in 13.5 minutes per game before March, the 21-year-old Vonleh finished the season with averages of 6.8 points and 7.7 rebounds over the final 23 games of the season while starting 44 of the last 45 contests of the regular season. What’s more, Vonleh recorded four of his five career double-doubles in the final month of the season while providing versatile post defense to catapult Portland past the Denver Nuggets and into the playoffs.
“I’m playing big, significant minutes,” Vonleh said as the Blazers ended their regular season campaign. “The coaches have a lot of trust in me. Keeping me out on the floor, they’re comfortable with me because I’m versatile as a defender, being able to guard pretty much 1-5. I feel like I’m a difference-maker out there.”
Vonleh’s progress was a stark reversal from last season, his first with Portland. After being selected as a lottery pick out Indiana University by Charlotte in 2014 and battled injures for the majority of his rookie season. A trade the following season sent the then-18-year-old big man across the country to Portland, forcing Vonleh to adapt to a new team and system in his first full season as a pro. Though he started 56 games for the Blazers in 2015-16, Vonleh was benched in mid-March and saw very few postseason minutes due to head coach Terry Stotts’ preference to play Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu alongside each other at the forward positions.
“Last year, moving Chief [ Aminu] over to the 4 was a big deal for us, Ed Davis was having a very good season. I think it was more roster management,” Stotts explained. “This year, [Vonleh] has certainly earned his minutes, but I think the roster is more conducive to him getting more minutes as well.
“It’s been a process,” Stotts continued. “I think like everybody, you see the growth. I think the last third of the season, he really seemed more comfortable. I don’t know if it’s attributable to Just being here or not, but I think it’s just part of his growth process.”
Echoed Vonleh: “I’m just more comfortable out there on the court, with the guys on the floor and knowing how to read certain situations and getting them open shots — just being a screener, playing with energy and doing my best on the defensive end.”
As any early 20-something could relate, Vonleh’s performance on the floor is direct result of his growing comfort with himself. Vonleh showed up to Summer League with an afro, followed by braids at training camp that evolved into cornrows throughout the season.
“I think he’s just comfortable with himself, that’s the biggest thing,” McCollum said of his teammate. “You see how he’s doing his hair — we all hate it, but he still does it. He’s comfortable with who he is and I think that’s a sign of maturity when you’re able to do things that people don’t necessarily agree with or conform to. I’m happy for him. He’s playing well, he’s aggressive and he works extremely hard. I’m happy to see everything coming together for him.”
Now, as the Blazers look to their upcoming first round series versus the top-seeded Golden State Warriors, Vonleh will likely draw the task of matching up with Warriors engine Draymond Green. Having grown into his role as a starter, it’s a matchup Vonleh is ready to make the most to make a proving ground.
“[Green] is a big focal point for their team; he’s a playmaker,” Vonleh said. “I’m just gonna try to make it tough and get into him defensively. I’m really looking forward to that matchup.
“Draymond is one of the best power forwards in this league right now, so you’ve always gotta get up and get ready for that.”