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Can Noah Vonleh run an offense? An investigation: Part One

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Digging into the nitty-gritty to see if Vonleh could be the Knicks’ point forward

NBA: New York Knicks at Washington Wizards Steve Flynn-USA TODAY Sports

This article is courtesy of Dallas Amico, AKA Buffalo66 in the P&T comments. Enjoy!

In a recent Fanpost, I argued that Noah Vonleh should be given a role — albeit a limited one — initiating the offense. More specifically, I argued that Vonleh’s skills give us good reason to believe that he can get to the rim regularly in certain offensive sets. Since I wrote that article, two things have happened: (1) trade rumors have emerged regarding Vonleh, and (2) I’ve spent a whole lot of time watching film of Vonleh. The result is this article. In it I will argue that Vonleh should be given a shot at initiating the offense. No qualifications, no holds barred, we should put the ball in Vonleh’s hands sometimes. Further, I’ll suggest that there are good reasons not to trade Vonleh at the deadline because of how valuable he would be if he could initiate the offense. Instead of trading him, we should use the rest of this lost season to experiment with him initiating the offense a significant portion of the time that he’s on the court.

Obviously, this take is a ghost-chili-level hot take, so I’m going to walk through my reasoning slowly and carefully. But, because I want this to be manageable, I won’t retread too much of what I argued for in the previous post. So, feel free to read that post, if you haven’t: https://www.postingandtoasting.com/2019/1/6/18171200/should-noah-vonleh-have-ball-handling-duties-lets-investigate-part-1

Why has Vonleh never been asked to run an offense?

The first thing to consider when evaluating Vonleh’s offensive ceiling is his current and historical offensive role. This year, he’s been asked to do more on the offensive side of the ball than he’s ever been asked to do. And, it appears like his role includes: (1) bringing the ball up the court in transition, (2) setting screens on and off the ball, (3) spotting up/spacing the floor, and on occasion (4) posting up. There are also instances where we’ll see him attack a close out, and once every 10 games he’ll put up a pull-up three. But, he very rarely deviates from this assigned role.

Why is all of this important? Typically, when scouting a player, we make judgements based on what they do on the court (groundbreaking, I know). For example, we might look at how frequently and efficiently a player makes unassisted baskets and take this as evidence for their ability to create shots for themselves. Or, we might look at a player’s assist/turnover ratio for evidence regarding their ability to facilitate for others. But sometimes what we see on the court (or what we can calculate with quantitative measures) doesn’t tell the whole story.

Consider Eric Bledsoe in college. He played next to DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall, and — unsurprisingly — was given a relatively minimal role in Kentucky’s offense. Because of this, his statistical profile didn’t pop off the page and his highlight reel was short (Devin Booker provides another example of this phenomenon). Many NBA teams mistakenly looked past him as a result (I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Cole Aldrich and Kevin Seraphin [OAKAAK!] probably should not have been drafted ahead of him).

So, what’s the lesson here? When scouting a player, you must take his role into account. If he appears to have an especially restrictive role, you need to look for an explanation. Sometimes, the explanation is just that the player lacks the ability to do anything else. But other times the explanation is that a coach has been too restrictive or unimaginative, or because the team is better if the player in question plays out of position, or… you get the idea. In the previous three cases, you must look past the player’s stats and closely examine their film for evidence regarding their abilities. Even though Bledsoe didn’t get to run the offense, did he ever create off the dribble? Did he ever blow by guys with his first step? Did he demonstrate a good feel for the game by making smart cuts, making quick reads when he caught the ball, and generally making the right play/being in the right spots? Did he ever show the ability to finish at the rim, perhaps in transition? And so on. If he did some of these things when he had the opportunity, you might have reason to evaluate him in a better light than his statistical profile and offensive role would suggest.

So, back to Noah Vonleh. It’d be very easy to watch him post up, set screens, spot up, and run down the court with his fancy dribbles only to hand the ball off over and over, and conclude that that’s all he can do. But I think that’s a mistake.

Throughout his career, Vonleh has never been asked to initiate an offense. In college, he was given a pretty small role in the offense for a top prospect (he only used 11.5 possessions per game, per Draft Express), and the majority of those possessions came in the post (a whopping 29.3% of his offensive possessions were post-ups, per Draft Express). Many of his other possessions came by way of catch-and-shoot and second-chance opportunities.

Fast forward to today. In the NBA, Vonleh has posted up significantly less. In turn, he’s been asked to set lots of screens, spot up, roll to the basket, and fill the dunker spot. But his usage rate has remained in the basement (this year he has the 376th lowest usage, per NBA.com) and he’s never averaged more than 1.3 drives per game for a season (per NBA.com). This is the statistical profile of a guy who has never been asked to create even a little bit of offense for a college or NBA team.

So, as with Eric Bledsoe, we need to look for an explanation. Does Vonleh lack the ability to initiate offense for himself or others, or is something else going on? In my view, Vonleh was pigeonholed into his current role when he got traded to Portland because of (1) his college reputation, and (2) the state of the Trailblazers when they acquired him. When you combine Vonleh’s offensive role and usage in college, you won’t find it surprising that he came into the league with a reputation as a defensive minded 4/5 utility guy who could rebound, post up, set screens, and maybe space the floor a bit. That sort of player was just what Portland was interested in the year they acquired him. It was their first year without Aldridge, and they had a budding Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum in the building — great initiators, but poor defenders. Someone with Vonleh’s reputation seemed like a perfect fit. Unfortunately for Vonleh, he struggled to fill that role in Portland. And, with the Trailblazers looking to compete, they weren’t interested in experimenting with his role. Thus, his minutes declined and his reputation as a not-so-great defensive/rebounding/floor spacing 4/5 tweener solidified. Today, Vonleh appears to have become average or above average at a bunch of those things, but he’s never been asked to do anything more.

However, like Eric Bledsoe, it isn’t the case that Vonleh lacks the tools to do more. In fact, he has repeatedly flashed a wide array of impressive initiator skills. While he hasn’t had the opportunity to utilize them on volume — making it difficult to judge whether he can utilize them efficiently at high usage — it’s pretty clear that he has them. In the remainder of this article I’m going to provide video evidence of a bunch of these different initiator skills, and argue that there is enough upside to the possibility that Vonleh can initiate the offense — even part time — that it’s worth giving him chances to initiate the offense during the rest of the season.

Can Vonleh get to the rim?

Basically, unless you’re Nikola Jokić, you need to be able to get to the rim if you’re going to be an initiator in the NBA. To do that, you need one or more of the following: an awesome first step (think Westbrook), elite shiftiness and elite handles (think Irving), elite strength (Ben Simmons/LeBron/Giannis) or the ability to hit pull-up 3s plus use the defense playing up on you to get into the paint (Harden/Curry). For his position (4/5), Vonleh has a good (probably not great) first step, average to above average shiftiness, plus handles, and very-plus strength. I don’t have much confidence that he’ll ever be able to hit pull-up 3s efficiently on volume, but even without that he has the tools to get to the rim frequently. Take a look some examples of him winning via his first step.

Here he beats Rudy Gobert easily with nothing but a little jab step:

Here he beats the more mobile Domantas Sabonis:

And look how easily he gets shoulder-to-chest advantage against one of the most mobile 4/5s in the league (Giannis):

But even when he can’t win with his first step, Vonleh has other tools to get to the rim. Here’s a few examples of him winning with strength (sometimes with a shoulder drop, sometimes by backing smaller defenders down).

Here Vonleh’s first step gets him partial shoulder-to-chest advantage on Giannis, but Giannis is able to recover. No matter, Vonleh muscles and fakes his way to an easy layup:

Here Luke Kornet is no match for his strength:

Here Jerami Grant isn’t either:

Here he overwhelms Kyrie Irving for the Sweet Potato (if a dunk is a yam, and a yam is a sweet potato, is a dunk a sweet potato? I’m pretty sure that’s how transitivity works):

And lastly, if you doubt that he has enough shiftiness/shake…

Given his tools, it’s shocking that he’s only averaging 1.3 drives a game. Vonleh clearly has the ability to frequently get to the rim against NBA defenders. So, why isn’t he doing it? Like I suggested, I think his assigned role in the offense is the reason. Even when Vonleh has obvious mismatches, attacking the basket doesn’t even cross his mind. Here’s an example. In the first play, Vonleh ends up with the slow-footed Jokić guarding him on the perimeter without help in the paint. But, he doesn’t even consider attacking the rim. As you can see in the freeze frame, the moment he reaches the top of the key his eyes start searching for someone to hand the ball off to. In the second video, Durant gives him an enormous amount of space, but Vonleh again doesn’t look to attack.

This sort of scenario plays out multiple times every game. Vonleh has ample room to attack when he brings the ball up the court, but doesn’t.

Even beyond his role in the offense, I don’t think Vonleh thinks of himself as a guy who can attack the basket. Here are a couple of clips where he doesn’t attack obvious mismatches. The Jokić one is especially absurd.

Someone needs to tell Vonleh that it’s okay to eat in these scenarios.

So far, I’ve provided evidence that Vonleh has the tools to frequently get to the rim. But, while that’s a necessary condition for being a high-level NBA initiator, it’s not a sufficient condition. He must also be able to efficiently turn those trips to the paint into points — either by scoring or by taking advantage of the collapsed defense by setting up his teammates.

This will be continued in a second part! Keep your eyes out.