With the draft lottery finished earlier this week, another piece of the summer puzzle has fallen into place, the Jazz slotted to select fifth in June. It seems strange to see an entire year’s worth of expectation now represented in a single digit, and a predictable reaction is disappointment that Utah was unable to remain in the top four or even sneak up into a higher slot. As per usual, some of the more outlandish responses are mostly out of place, such as the idea that any chance of drafting Jabari Parker has now evaporated1 or, even more egregious, the notion that drafting outside the consensus top four of Parker, Wiggins, Embiid and Exum makes it impossible to obtain a potential major impact player.
The perceived strength of this draft among knowledgeable folks since at least as early as November or December has been its great depth, throughout the lottery and even beyond. Moreover, every year we see examples of unexpected events surrounding the draft – a name or two who skyrockets up boards in the weeks leading up, a supposed “sure thing” guy dropping several spots for whatever reason (Nerlens Noel comes to mind), or a head-scratching move by a front-office2.
In short: a ton can happen between now and then. Chill back, Jazz fans – I feel your frustration, but far from all is lost. It wasn’t anyone’s first choice, but the fifth and 23rd picks in the deepest draft in at least a decade is nothing to sneeze at.
That said, predicting how things might change before June 26th is an exercise in straw-grasping, and being slotted fifth does introduce the non-zero chance that Utah doesn’t get a shot at any of those four big names. And while there’s no consensus fifth pick, one name that has begun to receive a lot of attention in recent weeks is center Noah Vonleh.
Coming out after a single year at Indiana, Vonleh projects as the sort of stretch big much of the NBA has begun to prefer over the last half-decade or so. For starters, he already has a deft shooting touch for an 18-year-old:
Vonleh shot 48.5 percent this season at Indiana, albeit on just over one attempt per game – this number is obviously not sustainable over a larger sample size, but his form is solid and seems to lack any major bad habits, and he should become a legitimate floor-stretcher in the NBA barring a major regression. He’s also capable as a mid-range shooter, both facing up from the post and coming out of pick-and-pops, and can make shots on the move:
Vonleh has drawn the most NBA comparisons to Chris Bosh, and while I’m typically not fond of our seemingly inherent need to attach a current NBA contrast to every single prospect3, many elements of their offensive styles are indeed similar. They have the same body type, both with gangly long limbs and somewhat graceful styles for men that size. Bosh actually took a comparable number of three-pointers in his year at Georgia Tech and had a similarly unsustainable percentage (46.8%), a fact many forget since he then mostly eschewed this part of his game until last season. Vonleh also shows a soft touch in the post and around the basket much like Bosh, and continued progression with his jumper could see him become the sort of midrange threat the Heat big man has blossomed into.
Vonleh doesn’t have the same sort of explosiveness Bosh did at this age, but he’s far stronger than his wiry NBA counterpart, with a higher ceiling as a post player and rebounder. He’s a bull down low on both ends, with a high motor and effort level that should endear him to his NBA coach right away. He’s comfortable on either side of the block, with excellent handles for his size, effective jump-hooks from both hands already in the bag and a patience well beyond his years:
His footwork is average, though a little NBA coaching could easily push him up a level or two. But perhaps most important of all Vonleh’s strengths is his rebounding – he averaged over 13 boards per-40-minutes in a tough Big 10 and is one of the elite rebounders in this year’s class. His freakishly long 7’4.25 wingspan certainly helps4, as does an excellent nose for the ball and great box-outs. His lack of vertical explosiveness will hurt him a bit here at the next level (more on this in a moment), but his ridiculously long arms and good rebounding instincts should signal an above-average NBA glass-eater, if not an elite one.
Vonleh has strong foot speed up and down the court, and his motor shows again here as he’ll frequently out-race his man down court for good post position. He projects as a strong defender in the post given his strength and length combo, and these same assets have allowed him to produce above average steal and block numbers at his position.
But he may struggle as an overall NBA defender, and this touches on his largest potential red flag: his surprisingly low feel and basketball IQ. One would never know it from the instincts he shows on the glass, but Vonleh, even for one of the youngest players in the draft5, lacks the sort of awareness that’s becoming more and more important in today’s game. He’s sometimes a black hole, one of the worst passers in the class both by the numbers and the eye test, frequently missing wide open teammates to pursue difficult looks6:
Further, his general “feel” is often just off – he’ll shoot the ball at a strange time, inexplicably short-circuit a working play for his own tangents, and seem confused in simple situations. This sort of thing translates over to his off-ball defense as well, where Vonleh will need some serious work to be a productive part of an NBA unit. These situations are hard to predict; there are a number of reasons he might be behind here, some of which are fixable7 and some of which aren’t8. The Jazz, and any other team looking closely at Vonleh, will surely do their best in the pre-draft process to determine the source of these issues and their potential ability to be repaired.
And as far as the Jazz go, of course, their interest level in someone like Vonleh will likely be tied to other personnel decisions, in particular that of Enes Kanter. After a lukewarm year, Utah has until opening week in October to either extend the young Turk or risk opening him up to restricted free-agency in summer 2015. A decision not to extend him this summer doesn’t mean he’s gone, of course, but this coupled with the selection of someone like Vonleh (or Julius Randle or Aaron Gordon) in June could signal that the Jazz have moved on from Kanter as their center of the future. On the other hand, if Utah sees Kanter as a long-term piece, they’d likely go in another direction, though a three-big situation going forward is not out of the question if Dennis Lindsey and crew view Vonleh as far and away the best remaining prospect at the five slot and no beneficial trades arise. Much of this hinges on whether or not they believe Vonleh can play center in the NBA or only power forward, a difficult question to answer at this point given his eclectic mix of strengths and weaknesses.
It won’t be an easy choice for the Jazz, and the one-spot drop to five has certainly made the picture many fans had envisioned a bit muddier. But again, there’s no call for despair – Utah still has an advantageous position and many options at its disposal, and expect Lindsey to exhaust all of these before draft night June 26th. Summer is coming, my friends9.