When Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller were two of the first four players taken in the NBA draft a year ago, it was a sign that Indiana was in for a rebuilding year.
Sure enough, the Hoosiers failed to reach the NCAA tournament while Oladipo was making an immediate impact with the Orlando Magic. But the freshman season of forward Noah Vonleh, while not without its share of growing pains, was a bright spot.
That being said, it’s more than a bit of a surprise to see someone who averaged a modest 11.3 points a game and had more turnovers than assists and steals combined on a team that went 17-15 being mentioned as a high lottery pick — possibly even to the Magic at No. 4.
Clearly the 6-foot-9 Vonleh has been making a big climb upward during the pre-draft process. He possesses many of the attributes scouts look for in a prospect, including massive potential for improvement. And remember that Oladipo wasn’t widely regarded as a possible second overall selection before the Magic turned him into one.
But compared to the splashy freshman seasons of Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle, Vonleh barely created a ripple. Does he deserve to be chosen right after them? Or will all that potential of his wind up going unrealized and make him the latest cautionary tale about how inexact a science drafting can be?
What’s starting to become apparent, however, is that if Magic general manager Rob Hennigan decides to take someone else, the Utah Jazz will be more than happy to select Vonleh at No. 5.
Vonleh averaged nine rebounds a game for Indiana, and his wingspan has been measured at almost 7-5. He recorded a double-double in six of his first nine games and later blocked four shots three times in Big Ten play. He’s long, athletic and coordinated, which makes him as intriguing of a prospect at power forward in the draft as Randle or Aaron Gordon.
Given the league-wide trend toward floor-spacing big men, the thing that might set Vonleh apart is his shooting range. Granted, he didn’t attempt many 3-point field goals, but the fact that he went 16 of 33 from that distance shouldn’t be ignored. He also shot better than 70 percent from the free-throw line, including a 13-of-16 performance against Syracuse.
All that potential means someone is going to have to invest a lot of time and patience to mold Vonleh into a finished product. Though he can block shots, his defense has been inconsistent. And as his statistics from last season bear out, he is prone to turnovers.
But what could scare off some teams is his frequent inability to finish at the rim. A number that has been cited as an illustration of that is Vonleh’s shooting percentage of only 59.3 percent at the rim. By comparison, Gordon shot 73 percent from there despite having a shorter wingspan.
WHY THE MAGIC SHOULD DRAFT HIM
Though all draft picks, even lottery selections, have rough edges which need to be smoothed over, few teams can match the Magic at taking the time to bring along younger players without rushing them. Vonleh would profit from that nurturing environment. And while he was never teammates with Oladipo at Indiana, it wouldn’t hurt to bring in another player from a storied program with fans who often showed up in large numbers to see the Magic at home and on the road.
WHY THE MAGIC SHOULD AVOID HIM
As is the case with any forward who the Magic are contemplating drafting, the risk of possibly stunting the growth of Maurice Harkless, Tobias Harris, Kyle O’Quinn and Andrew Nicholson needs to be taken into consideration. How many 25-and-under forwards is too many, especially with Nikola Vucevic hardly what anyone would call a sage veteran at center?
Vonleh’s hands have been measured at 11 3/4 inches in width and 9 3/4 inches in height. By comparison, NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard had his measured at 11 1/4 in width and 9 3/4 inches in height.