Signing Noah Vonleh to a one-year, $2 million contract may not seem like a big deal. But standing 6-foot-8 (without shoes), weighing 247 pounds and owning a 7’4.25″ wingspan, physically, Vonleh is the biggest player the Timberwolves added in this summer’s free agency process. With the departure of the incumbent bigs — Taj Gibson, Dario Saric and Anthony Tolliver — Vonleh’s contract size just begins to not matter. Simply put: Vonleh’s positioning on the depth chart entering the season suggests the Wolves are going to need every bit of his size.
Along with the free agency signings of Jake Layman and Jordan Bell, the move to sign Vonleh — and other moves not made — begin to paint the blueprint for how new president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas wants to put together his roster’s together. If a free agent is not a surefire starting-caliber player, they will not receive starter’s pay under his watch. This is the reason Rosas passed on matching Tyus Jones’ three-year, $26.5 million deal. Instead, the focus is to take cheaper bets on players who have a chance to exceed expectations. And if the free agent is young enough to potentially deliver more than they have previously promised — like Layman (25 years old), Bell (24) and Vonleh (24) — then there is a deal to be had.
Vonleh’s size, contract and age make him a worthwhile risk in Rosas’ eyes. In a thin frontcourt, Vonleh will definitely have the opportunity to prove the logic of the move. He may even be a Day One starter.
In 2014, when Vonleh was still 18 years old, he measured 6-foot-8 without shoes and weighed a whopping 247 pounds at the NBA’s pre-Draft combine. He also tallied a 7’4.25″ wingspan that makes his standing reach 9’0″. Physically, I’ve been comparing him to Derrick Favors, who has flanked Rudy Gobert in Utah for the past six seasons.
It’s this sturdy but surprisingly spry anatomical configuration that makes Vonleh a weapon. Lose position to Vonleh on the interior and he’ll instantly gain leverage. This makes him dynamic on deep post catches but probably shows up most in his rebounding. When locked in on snatching the ball off the glass, Vonleh is an absolute force. He rebounds beyond his zone, and that was the reason his defensive rebounding rate of 23.4% in New York last season ranked 15th in the league amongst players who played 25 minutes per night.
(Offensive) Positional Versatility
Prior to adding a capable jumper to his bag last season in New York, Vonleh was getting dangerously close to being labeled exclusively as a center. Through having some ability to space the floor, Vonleh’s presence on the floor with Karl-Anthony Towns should feel less cluttered than it did with Gibson and Gorgui Dieng in past seasons. Gibson all but stopped shooting 3s after the calendar flipped to 2019 last year. And the 52 above-the-break 3s Dieng has attempted in his six-year career make up less than half of the 116 above-the-break 3s Vonleh attempted just last season.
Offensively, it is likely that Vonleh will be asked to toe the line of spacing the floor and crashing the glass similar to the way Saric did last season. The difference, however, between Vonleh and Saric comes on the defensive end. Saric was more comfortable defending the opponent’s power forward, where Vonleh has gathered up experience defending centers. Much as it was with Gibson last year, the Wolves will likely try to save Towns’ six fouls by putting him on opposing forwards as much as possible. Vonleh can be given the duty of defending the Nikola Jokics and Andre Drummonds of the league in those situations.
Normally when a player begins to shoot better it often comes from shooting less. But last season, to his credit, Vonleh boosted his shot volume in New York while also posting a career-best true-shooting percentage (56.1%). The gray area here, however, comes from the fact that he did this while playing for the Knicks. New York had such a void of capable scorers that Vonleh was essentially granted the autonomy to shoot when and where he pleased.
Last season, the five-man group Vonleh played with most included Enes Kanter, Tim Hardaway Jr., Emmanuel Mudiay and Kevin Knox. In Minnesota, particularly if he starts, Vonleh will be playing with a far more capable unit. How Vonleh’s desire to get his jives with the volume of shots that will be coming from the like of Towns and Andrew Wiggins is a question mark. Especially in lineups with Towns, the best thing Vonleh can do is blend-in offensively. Stepping on KAT’s workload could be detrimental.
The baggage that comes with Vonleh’s one-year deal is that he’s playing for a new deal next year. Will he prioritize getting his own buckets because he believes boosting his scoring total will get him paid? In 2017-18, after getting traded from Portland to Chicago in the middle of the season, Vonleh’s shot volume increased by 169% on a per-possession basis. In 21 games with the Bulls, his shooting efficiency cratered down to a 48.4% true-shooting (worse than Andrew Wiggins’ rate last season). For Vonleh to mesh in Minnesota, again, particularly in lineups with Towns, his volume has to correlate to his efficiency.
Since the hiring of Rosas and the elevation of Ryan Saunders, there has been no shortage of discussion on how the Wolves will use a more versatile and strategic defensive scheme. Part of that strategy includes being a team that is switch-friendly following on- and off-ball screens. Players like Robert Covington and Jordan Bell can thrive in those actions but there are other players, like Vonleh, who have struggled to be effective switch partners thus far in their career.
For Vonleh, it’s not as if he isn’t the athlete to handle a switch; it’s almost that his athleticism hasn’t translated to effectiveness there. It’s not imaginative to believe Vonleh could add this; he’s done it, but not consistently. Highlights paint a distorted image, from what I can gather from the film of Vonleh’s I have watched. Blips of switch effectiveness, not a steady note.
Frequently in New York last season, Vonleh would catch a guard on a switch and would struggle to handle the matchup on his own. In these situations, he has a tendency to play up-right, seemingly so as to be ready to meet the opposing ball-handler at the rim for the block. But in this NBA, many of these guards are too crafty; they know guys like Vonleh want to pin their shot on the glass and respond by shooting from different funky angles. It is in these situations that Vonleh is often left looking like a fly-swatter. As a switching partner, Vonleh’s strength is literally his strength — he’s hard to go through — but his ability to effectively time moving his feet while elevating for the block is a balance he has not yet mastered.