The New York Knicks’ Power Forward situation is shaping up to be a little strange in the coming 2018-2019 season. Despite Porzingis’ self-described lizard healing powers, he’s likely to miss at least the beginning of the season, still recovering from the torn ACL. The Knicks will have to be particularly crafty trying to fill the void left by the rising Latvian star, as there’s a dearth of traditional 4’s on the roster. Perhaps it’s all by design, since Coach Fizdale is said to embrace the modern, quasi-positionless brand of basketball that has left so many old-school power forwards out in the cold. However, I’d wager that when the Blake Griffins and Julius Randles of the league stomp into town, you’ll see Fiz’s eyes wander down his bench, searching for a bigger body to fortify the defense.
Occasionally, those eyes may fall on Noah Vonleh.
Let it be known, I fully expect this team’s rotation to be very small-ball oriented as long as Porzingis is out. Kevin Knox and Mario Hezonja are likely better players than Vonleh at the moment (not a good sign for the young big, Knox being a rookie and Hezonja a fellow draft disappointment), and the whole point of positionless basketball is to keep your best players on the floor as much as possible. However, you know a time will come when Derrick Favors will elbow the lean, teenaged Knox into the front row, and Vonleh will get his time in the sun.
The real question is, can Vonleh steal significant minutes playing this kind of role. Quite honestly, I think it will require some major improvement. Vonleh failed to crack twenty minutes a game last season on a pretty barren Chicago Bulls roster, and was arguably lucky to receive the amount of playing time he did.
Vonleh’s major issues right now are on the offensive end. He’s one of these players who can sort of do a lot of different things, but doesn’t have that one skill that keeps him on the court. Ideally you’d like him to be a stretch-big, but he’s a career 66% free-throw shooter who barely scraped 30% from 3 last season. He doesn’t quite have a natural stroke; it’s a little slow, and occasionally results in some really rough misses.
One aspect of his game that has actually improved more than people give him credit for is his playmaking. Now, it’s not like you can run an offense through him like Nikola Jokic or Prime-Marc Gasol, but I was actually surprised to see how comfortable he is passing off of movement. It’s fairly basic stuff, but considering his reputation early-on as a black hole, the kind of player to whom you pass the ball and never see it again, I think it’s encouraging.
He has also improved his ball-handling a lot over the years, but I’d be surprised if that aspect of his game ever makes much on-court impact. He looks comfortable and fluid putting the ball on the floor, but he’s rarely able to create separation, being a 245 pound man with mediocre explosiveness. He is agile enough to attack closeouts though, so if his shot ever improves then perhaps that will become a bigger weapon in his arsenal.
In college, Vonleh was a man-child who could just physically bully inferior competition, and while his knack for rebounding the ball has remained intact, his interior scoring just hasn’t translated at all to the pros. Maybe it’s the fact that he has around average size for an NBA big (9’0” standing reach), maybe it’s his unimpressive bounce, maybe it’s his limited selection of post-moves. What’s clear is that Vonleh will need to find new ways to score if he ever wants to help teams win games at a high-level.
At this moment, Vonleh’s identity is that of a defensive-minded big, but we have yet to really see him develop into the kind of transformational defensive talent that would justify his getting drafted so high. Every year his teams defend just as well, if not better with him on or off the floor, and they score a lot more frequently with him on the bench. Possessing relatively nimble feet and a lengthy wingspan, few teams choose to target him in pick and roll or isolation settings. His big area for improvement is the mental side of the game, sniffing out plays before they even start running or knowing exactly when to provide help to a floundering teammate. With experience may come improved instincts, as we’ve seen guys like DeAndre Jordan arrive in the league extremely raw and slowly develop into quality team defenders. If his shot improves and the light turns on for Vonleh defensively, I think you’ll see him carve out a long NBA career. He is still only 22 after all. If not, I think you’re going to see a ton of Hezonja and Knox at the 4 this year.