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Noah Vonleh is the obvious choice to make the Celtics roster

So far this preseason, Vonleh has proven that he’s ready to be one of Boston’s big men.

2022 Boston Celtics Media Day Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Noah Vonleh looks ready.

For the majority of the offseason, a pressing storyline around the Boston Celtics (outside of the Ime Udoka situation) has been the search for extra frontcourt help. And as soon as Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams went down, that need increased tenfold.

There was nobody on the market who would have been able to replace what Williams brings to the table. Sam Hauser looks ready to step into a larger role similar to Gallinari’s, but the Celtics still need help at the five. Luke Kornet was supposed to step in, but a sprained ankle in training camp has forced him to miss all of the preseason so far. Blake Griffin is in town now, too, so that’s another option.

And then there’s Vonleh.

He’s ready to be the third string (or fourth string) center on a championship-caliber team, which in reality, isn’t asking much. The 27-year-old isn’t perfect, but he’s hungry for another shot in the NBA. And so far in training camp, he’s done exactly what the Celtics have needed.

Through three preseason games, Vonleh has averaged 7.7 points and 8.3 rebounds in 15.6 minutes of action per game (on 83.3% shooting from the field). Obviously, that efficiency isn’t sustainable, but his play has proven that he’s fully prepared to play minutes in Boston’s rotation this year when needed (even if the minutes are minimal).

The first thing that jumps off the page is his rebounding. In his one start for Boston this preseason, he tallied a 13-rebound performance, and outside of Griffin (who has only played in one game), he leads the team in rebounds thus far.

It may seem like a boring skill to have. Big men are supposed to rebound the basketball. But for a Celtics team that struggled to corral boards in crucial moments last year, it’s a valuable commodity to have on the roster. And outside of Kornet, he’s actually the tallest player on the roster at 6’10.

His height is far from the only reason he excels as a rebounder, though. No matter where he is on the court, once the shot goes up, Vonleh is sniffing out the rebound, fighting past anybody that gets in his way. His 7’4 wingspan helps with this, too, as he can snag rebounds over smaller teams like the Toronto Raptors. Vonleh never quite lived up to expectations in the league, but he was always a stellar rebounder; over the course of his seven seasons, he currently has more rebounds than points in the NBA.

Offensively, Vonleh doesn’t provide much out of the ordinary. Based on his preseason performances, he’s fairly one-dimensional. He can run pick-n-roll, he can throw down lobs, and he’s a pretty strong player. But he’s not a floor spacer, he’s not wildly athletic like the Robert Williamses and Bam Adebayos of the world, and he doesn’t have a wide variety of post moves. But, that’s okay.

Whenever Vonleh gets playing time, he’s going to play with some combination of dynamic scorers and above-average playmakers. With Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick White, and Payton Pritchard on the roster, he’ll never have to create his own offense.

His 83.3% field goal percentage may not be sustainable, but considering the shots he’s going to be asked to take, there’s no reason he can’t shoot above 70% from the field. The only time he’ll be taking shots is when he’s wide open under the rim.

This is where 90% of Vonleh’s points are going to come from. He’s not going to be creating offense for himself, but if someone (shoutout to Hauser for the nice find) is on the court to feed him off a cut or in the pick-n-roll, he’ll be fine. And once he gets down low, he’s a solid finisher. He just needs someone to get him the ball in the right spot.

On the defensive end, there are definitely some questions. Boston’s defense was so successful last year because everyone could guard everyone. That isn’t exactly the case with Vonleh. He’s not versatile enough to stay with guards consistently on the perimeter, and because of that, he ends up dropping back a bit more than guys like Al Horford and Grant Williams do.

This is a perfect example. When a guard as talented as LaMelo Ball gets a screen with Vonleh guarding the screener, he knows he’ll have space to work. Vonleh drops back, and Ball sinks a nice floater in the lane.

Boston has enough talented defenders to cover for Vonleh, but that deficiency is definitely one to note because the Celtics will have to work around it.

Here is Boston trying to cover for Vonleh. Williams shifts over from the perimeter to guard Terry Rozier instead of having Vonleh come up from the paint on the switch. It leaves Ball wide open on the three-point line for an easy bucket while Vonleh is caught in no man’s land. Mason Plumlee could have rolled, so Vonleh covered that, but in the Celtics’ switch-everything defense, the big man and the guard would usually just switch, putting Hauser on Plumlee.

All that being said, he can defend the post fairly well. He’s not going to be stopping Joel Embiid, but he can bang down low. Vonleh has a solid frame and is very much a positional defender, and for a back up to the back up big, that’s, well, okay.

There’s also the issue of his illegal screens. He got caught a few times in Boston’s second game against the Charlotte Hornets, moving his feet instead of planting himself. A couple of the calls could have gone either way, but regardless, it’s a skill he has to work on.

He could also stand to work on the Daniel Theis seal, as it has become known in Boston. Vonleh almost gets to the spot here but ends up getting whistled for a foul.

For all of his skills and flaws, however, the most important aspect of his game to take note of is the energy he plays with. Vonleh doesn’t take plays off. When you’re trying to make a comeback in the NBA, you can’t take plays off. He hustles, plays hard, and makes sure to bring energy whenever he’s on the court.

But at the same time, he’s not the flashiest player. Fans have been smitten with Mfiondu Kabengele because of the lobs, the blocks, and the intensity, but Vonleh has quietly been the more effective big man.

Kabengele is already on a two-way contract, so his place on the team is secured. Vonleh is still on an Exhibit 9 contract, meaning he’s fighting for a roster spot every day. And when looking at their bodies of work so far this preseason, Kabengele may have the highlights, but Vonleh has the results. He’s not going to make SportsCenter, but he’ll do all the little things on the court that Boston needs from a big man off the bench.

Sure, there are some limitations to note. Against the Raptors, he didn’t get much playing time, and that’s likely due to their versatile lineup. He’s not able to keep up with guys like Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes, who Nick Nurse is sometimes rolling out at the five. But against the Hornets, who play traditional bigs like Plumlee and Nick Richards, Vonleh works well.

Mazzulla seems to trust him, too. He’s been a big part of the rotation in both games against the Hornets. Boston was missing their starters in one of those games, but even in the one where they played, Vonleh still logged 15 minutes of action.

Out of all the training camp guys on the Celtics roster, Vonleh is the most NBA-ready, and it’s not particularly close. As things stand, he should be a shoo-in for Boston’s 14th (and likely final) roster spot.

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