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Can Noah Vonleh run an offense? An Investigation: Part Two

Is there more to Vonleh than meets the eye?

NBA: Phoenix Suns at New York Knicks Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

This article is courtesy of Dallas Amico, AKA Buffalo66 in the P&T comments, and is a continuation of part one from the other day. Enjoy!

Noah Vonleh’s Passing ability

Because Vonleh doesn’t drive, doesn’t run pick-and-roll, and generally doesn’t have the ball in his hands with a green light to attack, I think Vonleh’s pedestrian passing statistics tell us almost nothing about his potential as a passer when initiating the offense. Even his significant increase in assists this year isn’t particularly encouraging or enlightening, because the vast majority of them come from plays like this, which just aren’t probative for the question at hand:

In order to evaluate his ability, we again need to take a deep dive into the film. What I’ll try to suggest is that there’s enough here to believe that Vonleh can (a) read the defense moderately well, (b) make passes with his back to the basket, and — most importantly — (c) keep his head up while dribbling and make accurate passes off the bounce. While I’ll try to make the case for these claims with video evidence, it’s very difficult to determine whether he’d be able to do these things efficiently on volume. Giving him a shot is probably the only way to figure that out.

Let’s start with (a). One bit of evidence for (a) is Vonleh’s ability to effectively move around the floor off-ball. Vonleh rarely clogs the lane or cramps the team’s spacing. He sets smart screens within the offense, moves the ball quickly, and he occasionally makes good off-ball cuts. Lots of people have noticed these things, so I’ll just offer a few examples of the latter two.

Here is an example of a well-timed off-ball cut:

And here are four examples of quick decisions within the offense/flow of the game:

Let’s now turn to (b) and (c) — more evidence for (a) will emerge as we go through the rest of this section.

A quick note about why (b) and (c) are important. When Vonleh attempts to get to the rim against smaller players, he often turns his back to the basket and tries to win with strength (recall the clip of him backing Kyrie Irving down from the top of the key). If he’s going to function as an initiator, it’s important that he has the ability to make reads and passes with his back to the basket. (c) is important for the same reasons, just applied to him attacking while facing the basket.

Regarding (b), the Knicks don’t really have any good off-ball cutters, but Vonleh has demonstrated the ability to find them when he has his back to the basket. See these examples:

Moreover, he’s also demonstrated the ability to find open shooters with his back to the basket, even out of the double team (as in the third example below).

In the above video he shows composure and patience when double teamed. If he becomes a reliable initiator, he can expect to face scenarios like this more frequently, and it’s a very positive sign that he doesn’t panic and makes a solid read in this scenario.

Here’s my favorite example of Vonleh’s ability to pass with his back to the basket. He creates a mismatch by setting two great screens, ultimately forcing Klay Thompson to switch onto him. Then he exploits the mismatch with his strength and quickness to get deep into the paint. He reads the help defense coming weak side, and finds Mudiay open in the weak side corner. Mudiay swings the ball to Knox, and Vonleh quickly vacates the paint, allowing him to attack the basket and force the contact.

This clip also provides a nice example of two advantages an offense gains when a big who is a solid screener can initiate the offense. First, the big is able to create mismatches for themselves and others without help. With a good off-ball screen, Vonleh forces the switch. This creates a mismatch that he’s able to exploit. However, against ordinary teams with 4s and 5s that are less mobile than Draymond, he also would have created a mismatch for Timmy. While smaller initiators typically rely on solid screen setters to create mismatches like this, bigger initiators can do all of the work themselves.

Second, big initiators add an extra element of deception to the offense. When a small initiator fails to create penetration, they typically swing the ball to a teammate. But bigger initiators often have an extra option — they can seamlessly switch from ball handler to double hand-off (DHO) screener. Watch this video starting at the 45-second mark.

In this play, Ben Simmons comes off a screen intended to get him a mismatch in a post-up/face-up situation. He can either attack from a pretty good spot there, or transition into a PnR. In this example, he runs an unsuccessful PnR. However, because of his ability as a screener, he’s able to transition seamlessly into a DHO for Dario Saric, which leads to a wide open shot. It’s also worth noting how much space this set of actions created on the baseline. While Saric took the shot, he could have continued his cut around Ben Simmons and created a shot at the rim. This is an action that teams like the 76ers, Bucks and Nuggets (they’ve arguably perfected it) can run, because they have a big initiator. And it puts enormous amounts of pressure on the defending team. In the play linked above, which lasts about seven seconds, Javele McGee is forced to make three switch/don’t switch decisions in communication with two other players.

OK, so I think we’ve seen enough evidence for (b). Vonleh can make passes with his back to the basket. Next, let’s discuss (c), his ability to pass off the dribble and in face up situations.

Again, since he doesn’t drive a lot, we’re looking for promising/worrisome signs wherever we can find them. It makes sense to start our search by looking at his transition game, because that’s one of the few times he has the ball in his hands. Unfortunately (for some mind-boggling reason), his assignment is typically to get down the court and hand the ball off. Still, there are some examples we can learn from. First, a good sign: Vonleh almost always keeps his head up in transition. While there are times where he misses open men, it’s not because he’s watching the ball while he dribbles (like a certain 19-year-old rookie you all might have heard about). This allows him to see the floor and move the ball ahead quickly. Check out these two examples (pay special attention to his eye level while dribbling):

While this is all well and good, throughout all of the Vonleh footage I’ve watched, I’ve never seen him make any “wow” passes in transition. He sees the men around him (usually), but he doesn’t have that Jokić-type ability to see all the way down the court (or, if he does, he doesn’t try to make those passes). I also say that he usually sees the men around him, because there are occasions where he gets transfixed on the hoop and misses the easy pass (this also occurs in the half-court). Too often, this has resulted in him taking a more difficult shot than his teammate would have had he made the pass, or it’s resulted in him committing an offensive foul. For example, look at how open Kevin Knox is as the trailer in this play. Even though it appears that Vonleh sees Knox, he attacks one of the game’s best defenders, forces a high difficulty shot, and gets called for the charge.

Here’s an example in the half-court where he forces up a high difficulty shot despite Kanter being open in the dunker spot. He makes the shot, but it probably wasn’t the right play.

His passing in the half-court has also been a mixed bag. In the play below, Vonleh beats his man with a pump fake (shooting 41.3 percent from 3, per Basketball-Reference, makes the pump fake a real weapon), collapses the defense by attacking the hoop, reads the defense and makes an excellent pass out to the perimeter:

Here he uses a pump fake and a hard right-to-left crossover to collapse the defense, then reads the defense and finds the open man in the corner:

Both of these plays are really promising. I feel very confident that Vonleh can collapse the defense reliably. If he’s able to consistently make the correct reads after doing so, he’ll be able to reliably create good looks for his teammates. Since he drives so rarely, it’s difficult to be overwhelmingly confident. But it looks like he has the ability to do this.

Still, Vonleh isn’t perfect. One of his major problems is that he frequently commits one of Clyde’s cardinal sins — picking up his dribble too soon. I suspect this is fixable. For now, it’s led to several bad plays, but it’s also led to one of Vonleh’s more impressive passing plays. Let’s look at one of the bad plays first.

In this next clip, he picks the ball up without having beaten his man, and without any clear passing lanes. It results in a poor turnover.

In the next clip, he again he picks up his dribble much too quickly. At least in this case he’s in control and ends up making a nice play:

In this next example, it’s more excusable that he picks up his dribble since he doesn’t really have control of the ball. But I’m showing you this play because it ends up resulting in one of Vonleh’s most impressive passes. When you watch the clip, notice how he uses his eyes to move Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb away from Mitch. This leaves Mitch wide open, and Vonleh makes an accurate no-look (or barely look) pass to Mitch for the Sweet Potato (yam):

Alright, so let’s sum up a bit. Vonleh has clearly flashed some potential as a passer. We’ve seen examples of him collapsing the defense, reading the defense, and making good passes to open 3-point shooters both off the dribble and with his back to the basket. We’ve seen examples of him manipulating the defense with his eyes. We’ve seen that he has good court awareness, and okay (probably not great) vision. On the downside, we’ve seen him pick his dribble up a bit too quickly, and get too focused on the rim sometimes. I’ve never seen him make a pass to someone in the dunker spot off the dribble, despite having several opportunities to do so. Put all of that together… Can he be effective at higher usage? I don’t know. But I sure as hell want to find out.

Before ending this section on Vonleh’s passing, I want to say a couple things about his ability in the PnR. First, in my fanpost, I discussed why PnRs with bigs are often incredibly effective. I won’t rehash that here. But, because of the value bigs generate when running PnR, I do want to take a moment to consider his ability to do so.

Unfortunately, I’ve only been able to find one example of Vonleh running a pick-and-pop (none of him running a PnR). But here are some educated guesses based on what we’ve seen so far. First, can he pass from the PnR? The fact that Vonleh hasn’t been able to find guys open in the dunker spot and his tendency to get transfixed on the hoop makes me question his vision in traffic. Because of that, I’m not particularly confident that he’ll be able to effectively make pocket passes. That said, I feel relatively good about his ability to find guys on the perimeter, because we’ve seen plenty of examples of him being able to do just this.

That said, Vonleh has flashed a really high-level PnR skill that is really effective at creating passing lanes — putting the defender in jail. When the ball handler’s man goes over the screen in a PnR, it’s often beneficial to get between them and the basket. This forces the defender to defend from behind, and also forces the drop man to stay in front of the ball handler at the cost of leaving the roll/pop man. This is a really high-level skill, because it requires a combination of strength, ball handling, balance, and timing/awareness/change of pace that few guys have. (Check out this video for some examples.)

While this next play isn’t in a PnR situation, notice how Vonleh effectively performs this move in transition. He gets Ben Simmons (a strong defender) on his back by changing speeds, maintains his dribble, surveys the court, and then attacks the hoop for the Sweet Potato.

This is really, really impressive stuff. And, it bodes well for him being able to create passing lanes for the roll man in the PnR.

The next question to ask is about his finishing ability, but that’s the topic of the next section. First, however, take a look at the one example I found where he is the PnP ball handler. He makes a good (albeit awkward) decision to attack the hoop and gets there pretty easily. But rather than exploding to the hoop and taking advantage of the step he has on his man, he goes for a fancy finish and misses badly.

Vonleh’s finishing ability

It’s all well and good to get to the rim, but initiators need to be able to score there efficiently. And given that it’s unlikely that Vonleh is anything more than an average to good passer, if he’s going to be able to add high-level value as an initiator, he’s going to need to score efficiently at the rim. In my previous post I was critical of Vonleh’s ability to finish. He has a bad habit of finishing below the rim (like in the video you just watched) despite his superb size, length, and leaping ability. Nonetheless, his efficiency on low volume at the rim has ticked up this year. If you remove hook shots, Vonleh is shooting just above 60 percent from the rim (per Basketball-Reference), and more than half of those shots have been unassisted. That’s certainly not elite, but it’s an improvement. Although, again, in a very small sample size.

Summing up

At this point, I’ve argued that Vonleh can frequently get to the rim off the dribble, can pass a bit, has flashed some intriguing PnR tools, and his finishing at the rim has improved. I’m not sure how confident we should be that Vonleh can put all of those skills together and run an offense at a high level for complete games. Very few guys are capable of doing that, and Vonleh has never been asked to do that sort of thing in his professional career. Still, the flashes combined with the potential value of somebody his size being able to initiate the offense — even part-time — is too intriguing to ignore. Given that the Knicks aren’t competing for anything but Zion this season, Vonleh deserves some opportunities to run the offense.

Moreover, the flashes are tantalizing enough that it would be a mistake to trade Vonleh unless there’s an overwhelming haul coming back. With lofty free agent plans this coming offseason, this might be our only opportunity to give him a tryout. I also expect that there would be significant growing pains for Vonleh, and having the extra time to work through them freely would be valuable.

Finally, if you really believe in the flashes, then there might be reason to sign him to a long-term contract before starting the experiment. After all, if the experiment goes well, he’ll demand a much bigger contract. And because of the value that Vonleh brings in other areas (via his shooting, rebounding, defense, and screen assists), there’s very little risk of the contract being an albatross even if the experiment utterly fails. In fact, if it’s for the right price/length, it’ll likely be a pretty valuable contract no matter what. Of course, that might make signing two free agents to max contracts this summer difficult. But I’ll leave it to you all to balance out the weight of those considerations.

So, there’s my ghost pepper chili level hot take. Our team is apocalyptic garbage. But just maybe Vonleh can make like the biblical Noah and save us from the deluge of losses.