Back in 2018, when Noah Vonleh joined the Knicks, he finally figured it all out and blossomed into the player everyone expected him to be.
The former No. 9 pick averaged 8.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.8 blocks, and 0.7 steals and earned lofty praise from then head coach David Fizdale.
“Obviously he was highly touted coming out of high school, but I didn’t realize how versatile he was,” Fizdale told reporters at the time. “…He’s been a real pleasant surprise.”
It appeared likely at that point that Vonleh would have a long and fruitful career as a productive role player. That season felt like the true beginning, rather than the end. As it turned out, though, 2018-19 was the apex, and it’s been downhill ever since. He’s played just 40 NBA games from then on and hasn’t looked like himself. Vonleh didn’t score in four games with the Nets two seasons ago before heading overseas.
This past season, in 28 games with the Shanghai Sharks, he averaged 14.4 points and 9.2 rebounds while hitting 38.9 percent of his 3’s. Now, he’ll try to prove he still belongs in the NBA and will look to carve out a role on a Celtics team that could use another serviceable backup big.
The 6-foot-10 rim-runner Vonleh turns 27 in a few weeks, which should theoretically put him in his prime. The Haverhill native is also returning home, which should give him an added jolt – and make him an easy guy for Celtics fans to get behind.
There’s absolutely zero risk, because it’s a one-year, training camp deal, and it could end up as a sneaky, under-the-radar acquisition that pays dividends for both parties. Sometimes all it takes is one more team to believe in a player for them to revitalize their career.
As the roster currently stands, the Celtics have Robert Williams, Al Horford, and Grant Williams as bigs who are locks to see playing time. Freshly signed forward Danilo Gallinari, and even Jayson Tatum, could possibly see some time at the 4. Luke Kornet, Mfioundu Kabengele, Bruno Caboclo and Juwan Morgan are all in the mix as candidates to see sporadic minutes, too.
Vonleh, if he’s able to play anywhere close to the way he did in New York just a few years ago, could be the best of those options. He finishes in traffic, runs the floor relatively well, is an above-average defender, can step out and shoot 3’s, hustles, rebounds at a high level, and doesn’t make many mistakes. Vonleh has a chance to thrive in the pick-and-roll with Marcus Smart, Malcolm Brogdon and Derrick White and provide another lob threat along with Robert Williams.
Even though he’s been out of the league for a bit, he’s played in 339 NBA games, so he knows what it takes to succeed at the highest level. He’s someone who can blend into his surroundings and doesn’t really hurt a team if he’s playing to his potential.
Robert Williams is springy but isn’t a reliable shooter yet. Horford can shoot but isn’t springy. No one else on the roster has Vonleh’s combination of skills. The truth is, Robert Williams and Horford could miss time with an injury or to rest, and Vonleh could be the man to fill in.
Kornet will likely get a little run, but there’s no reason Vonleh shouldn’t steal those minutes away and become this team’s ninth or 10th man.
Vonleh has to be thrilled with this opportunity. It’s a chance to play for a contender, in his hometown, on a roster that needs what he can provide. Vonleh is likely salivating at the chance to show he’s not washed up, too. This is the best opportunity he’s going to get, and all he has to do is maximize it.