NBA training camps are filled with players on the fringe of making it into the league. There are the undrafted youngsters looking to secure one-year minimums and two-way deals. There are unsigned veterans looking for that last run with a contender.
And then there’s the in between, former first rounders who played themselves out of the bigs after their rookie deals expired, bounced around, and are trying to find their way back in.
After the Celtics contacted him in late August with an opportunity to play for his hometown team, the Salem native jumped at the chance. A hamstring injury plagued him when he initially arrived, but slowly but surely, Vonleh has impressed with his steady work ethic and solid play.
In China, Vonleh admitted that he could play “more free” abroad and averaged 14 points and 9 rebounds for the Shanghai Sharks. With the Celtics, he’s taking a more day-to-day approach and playing within his role.
“I feel like I’ve always been a pretty versatile player, but (I’ve been) maturing over the years, learning screening angles, learning different systems, and just learning the game and slowing the game down,” Vonleh said after Sunday’s practice.
On Friday night, Vonleh started for Boston and finished with a 14-point, 13-rebound double-double. In three preseason games, he’s made ten of his twelve shots and grabbed 25 rebounds in 47 minutes. Those aren’t monster numbers, but it’s his humble understanding of his role and how he fits into hierarchy of last year’s Eastern Conference champs that could earn him one of the final two spots on the roster as a backup big.
“We got a two-headed monster with Jayson (Tatum) and Jaylen (Brown). The biggest key when I step into the game and when I’m on the floor with those guys is trying to get a low angle and get those guys open, using my body to create angles and give them the mismatch,” Vonleh said. “If they want to throw it in there if I have a guard on me, we’ll exploit that also.”
Vonleh spent two of his most successful seasons in Portland early in his young career flanked by another star-studded duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Those teams only went to the West semis and he admits that Brown and Tatum are more dynamic than his former teammates and with a possibility to not just make it back to the NBA, but contribute to a title contender, his focus remains on the present.
“The journey continues. I don’t know if this will be the last stop, but I’m happy to be here now. I’m staying in the moment, staying in the now.”