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Noah Vonleh finally playing his complete game, rewarding Knicks for having faith in him

TARRYTOWN, N.Y. — Doubt crept into Noah Vonleh’s mind during his pregame routine. I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to do these things here, he thought. Maybe I’m just burning myself out working on extra stuff. Maybe I just need to work on being a physical bruiser. He kept going, though, working on his perimeter skills and long-distance shooting. Vonleh reminded himself that he wanted to last in the NBA, that he needed to keep doing the things that got him there, the things that he’d been doing since he was a kid — even if he was hardly doing anything in games. 

After a recent New York Knicks practice (and a series of post-practice shooting games), Vonleh looked back on the lowest points of his career. One was sitting on the sideline as a rookie, regularly collecting DNPs until the Charlotte Hornets were eliminated from playoff contention. The other was about a year ago, going from the Portland Trail Blazers‘ starting power forward to an end-of-the-bench guy in a flash. On his fourth team in five years, after signing a non-guaranteed contract and surviving training camp’s final cuts, the No. 9 pick in the 2014 draft is no longer second-guessing himself. 

“You gotta be mentally strong,” Vonleh told CBS Sports. “I mean, it’s going to waver a little bit, but you just gotta try to do the best you can to stay locked in because anything can happen.”

Through 25 games in New York, Vonleh has averaged 8.4 points and 8.1 rebounds in 25.3 minutes, shooting 50 percent and making 45.5 percent of his 3-pointers. He is the only Knick with a positive net rating, and the team has been outscored by 14 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench. Less than a minute into Saturday’s victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, Vonleh took Giannis Antetokounmpo off the dribble from the 3-point line, cuffed the ball in his massive right hand and hammered the ball through the rim over helpless big man Brook Lopez. He also spent the night as Antetokounmpo’s primary defender and swished all three of his 3-point attempts.

“I didn’t realize how versatile he was,” New York coach David Fizdale said. “And [general manager] Scott Perry just kept saying it to me. He said, ‘Coach, when this kid was in high school, man, this kid could do everything.””

Despite being discarded by the Hornets, Blazers and Bulls, Vonleh is still just 23, less than five months older than rookie teammate Allonzo Trier. “Some people aren’t patient,” Vonleh said, but he believes his experience bouncing around the league readied him for this. When the Knicks added him, they got “force, aggression, commitment, physicality, all that in one,” guard Damyean Dotson said. Every time he dunks on someone, blocks a shot or makes a 3, the signing looks a little smarter.  

“It’s definitely a turning point in my career where I change the narrative on how people view me as a player,” Vonleh said. 

Noah Vonleh

On a rebuilding team in New York, Noah Vonleh can show what he can do.

Playing on outdoor courts in Haverhill, Massachusetts, a young Vonleh emulated Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady. He wanted to handle the ball like his heroes, and his AAU coach, Vin Pastore, let him be a point forward. In pre-draft interviews after his lone season at Indiana, he told teams his best attribute was his ability to do multiple things. Vonleh knew he was seen as undersized — he measured at 6-foot-8 without shoes at the combine — but he could move his feet well and defend different positions. His 7-4 1/4 wingspan mitigated the concerns about his height, too. 

At Vonleh’s introductory press conference, then-Hornets general manager Rich Cho praised him for his “unique” package of skills and his ability to play inside and out. Vonleh did not, however, wind up showing much of his skill set in Charlotte. He had to play catch-up because surgery for a sports hernia injury kept him out of training camp. The team had made the playoffs the season before, and it expected more success as it rebranded from the Bobcats to the Hornets. Vonleh’s playing time was not a priority; neither were his ambitions to be an all-around player. As a rookie, though, he could not complain.

“They didn’t really want me shooting and doing all types of things right away, so I had to kind of adjust and adapt to the style they wanted me to do,” Vonleh said. “They had me playing a lot of center and things like that. I mean, I could play it, but I kind of felt like I was out of position.”

Almost exactly a year after becoming a Hornet, Vonleh became a Blazer. The day before the 2015 draft, he woke up from a nap with more than one missed call from Cho. Despite being drafted for his upside, he was traded for veteran Nicolas Batum, a clear win-now move.

Vonleh was in shock: “I’m getting ready to go back to the gym and work out at night ’cause I’m hyped for summer league and then I wake up and the GM is calling me.” He talked to his agent, Jeff Schwartz, who confirmed the news. 

In Portland, Vonleh was essentially a rebounding specialist. He started 109 of his 181 games over two-and-a-half seasons in a crowded frontcourt, never averaging more than 17.1 minutes and falling out of the rotation several times. He quickly gravitated toward teammate Ed Davis, who dealt with something similar in Memphis years earlier. Davis noticed “the natural, God-given stuff” Vonleh had — the hands, the frame and the strength — and the fact that he didn’t let his situation discourage him. 

“He was always coming back at night, getting his work in,” Davis said. “He always just did the right thing. Guys like that, you usually root for.”

Last season, rookie Zach Collins took Vonleh’s minutes and Portland dumped him to the Bulls at the trade deadline. He had his moments in Chicago, but the franchise was not particularly invested in him, especially after it drafted Wendell Carter in June.

“I think that his career has been up-and-down because of the situation,” Davis said. “Portland didn’t really do right by him. He got traded to Chicago, a team that wasn’t trying to win. They were going young, they draft a big. So they don’t [extend] his qualifying offer, and you get in a situation where he doesn’t have offers on the table.”

Based on his first four years, you might expect Vonleh to have a massive chip on his shoulder. Instead, he sounds motivated, but content. He acknowledged that it would have been nice to play quality minutes as a rookie and it’s “kind of tough” if you don’t feel like your organization believes in you, but made no bold claims about making his former teams pay. Part of the job, he has learned, is to adapt to what the league throws at you. 

“I wouldn’t want it any other way,” Vonleh said. “I’m glad I went through it, that this is how it played out. Just being able to see different sides of the league. Because now, like, I’m built for it. If I get traded or something happens, I already know what to expect. I know how it is. So I’m glad I went through that. It builds character. It makes you stronger as a person. As a player, too.”

The first day Vonleh scrimmaged with the Knicks, Fizdale told him to push the ball after every rebound. His eyes lit up. These were the same instructions he’d received in AAU ball.  

“He saw that I was going to have a lot of confidence in him to try some stuff,” Fizdale said. “And now he’s shooting the 3, he’s posting. He does everything for us. I think I said it before: He’s our most complete player right now.”

Over dinner in Manhattan in the summer, Davis, now a Brooklyn Net, told Vonleh that Fizdale would give him the opportunity he wanted, assuring him that the coach would play whoever deserved to be on the court. Before New York had even signed Vonleh, Fizdale challenged him to change his diet, work on his conditioning and get in the best shape of his life.

“He’s a great guy,” Vonleh said. “He’s a great motivator. He’s real empathetic. He was just telling me man-to-man, he was just keeping it real with me.”

New York is rebuilding, and the front office has a type: former lottery picks looking for another chance. Last season, the Knicks signed Trey Burke and traded for Emmanuel Mudiay. On the first day of free agency in July, they reached an agreement with Mario Hezonja. All of them will be free agents in seven months. There is a certain bond that comes with being in the same fight. 

“We’re smart guys, we know what’s in front of us,” Vonleh said. “We all came from tough situations. We’re just trying to kind of rebuild our careers in a way.”

With franchise player Kristaps Porzingis still recovering from a torn ACL, the Knicks, back in action against Boston on Thursday (8 p.m. ET — watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension), are 8-17 and bottom-five in net rating. There is no go-to guy, there is no clear hierarchy and Fizdale is still tweaking his rotation. Burke had 31- and 29-point performances before being replaced in the starting lineup by Mudiay, who dropped 28 on the Bucks after scoring just three points in his previous game. Vonleh, for the first time in his career, has a major role on a team that is dedicated to development. “Everybody is free to do some things, as long as you don’t go out there and look crazy doing it,” he said. Another way of putting it: Fizdale isn’t too concerned with technical mistakes if you are playing assertively and unselfishly. 

“I think Fiz is putting that battery in him and letting him go,” Davis said. “In other stops, he didn’t have that. In Portland, he didn’t have that. In Chicago, they probably could care less about him.”

Vonleh doesn’t want to put any limits on himself. He talks about how he fits into “positionless basketball” and the way the game is going, but he also simply doesn’t want Fizdale to sub him out when he needs shooting or defense. He has already played more than twice as many minutes for New York than he did for the team that drafted him. 

Sometimes, Fizdale said, all a player needs is to hear that an organization wants and has faith in him. Mudiay, who has known Vonleh since high school, said he’s not the least bit surprised by his emergence. The first time Fizdale called him the Knicks’ most complete player, Vonleh saw the quote, but he wanted to clarify something: Complete does not mean he’s close to stardom or being a finished product, but that he can do a bit of everything. He wants to take his game “up to different levels.”

Reminded of his driving dunk against the Bucks, Vonleh said it feels great to make plays like that. You should always be engaged on the court, he said, but when you’re having fun, you really lock in. These days, Vonleh is having all sorts of fun, and if he could talk to the 19-year-old version of himself — the guy who is about to get hurt, get benched and bounce around the league — he knows exactly what he’d say.

“Just stick to what you know,” Vonleh said. “Keep working. Don’t let nobody tell you you can’t do this, you can’t do that. Just keep pushing at it. Eventually, it’s going to break.”

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