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FILM STUDY: Scouting Noah Vonleh with Joe Hulbert of Canis Hoopus

Minnesota Timberwolves v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

On Monday afternoon, Brooklyn’s front office made it official: former lottery selection Noah Vonleh became a Brooklyn Net. After what some might describe as an unceremonious exit from the league –– a positive COVID-19 test and subsequent waiving from Chicago’s preseason roster (C’mon Bulls, have some class!) multi-tool big man Noah Vonleh earned himself a big-time opportunity with a championship contender in New York City.

Just based on what we know about Brooklyn’s roster (*glances at Norvel Pelle’s 6 fouls in 17 minutes against Philadelphia*), I don’t think it’s crazy to say that there may be frontcourt minutes to go around; ample opportunity arises for Vonleh to prove himself once more, on –– no big deal at all –– the biggest stage possible.

To make sense of Sean Marks’ latest acquisition, I’ve recruited Joe Hulbert from our sister site, Canis Hoopus, to help. Joe is one of my favorite basketball content creators PERIOD, a truly splendid dude, and the author of one of my three favorite basketball articles this year, Inside the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Bland Offensive Strategy.

(Seriously Nets fans, I suggest you read this one. Joe’s X’s and O’s coverage is always sharp, but there are some seriously splendid tidbits about former Net All-Star, D’Angelo Russell, as well as a brief homage to former Nets head coach, Kenny Atkinson. I can’t recommend it enough!).

First off, Joe, thank you for joining me. This is an absolute honor, and I’m so excited to talk some hoops with you.

To get right into it, we’ll start here...

Matt Brooks: We had a little back-and-forth about this on Twitter, but what does Vonleh offer on the defensive side of the ball? Do you think he’ll fit into Brooklyn’s switching defense? Is he more of a drop-back big? Or does Vonleh present some versatility guarding closer to the perimeter?

Joe Hulbert: This is a difficult question to give a concrete answer to purely because of Minnesota’s scheme. David Vanterpool runs a pure drop scheme, with any switches being of the 1-4 variety. The center at Minnesota almost never hedged or blitzed, as they wanted to maintain structure and protect the paint. They also didn’t have the personnel for recoveries on blitzes.

Assessing Vonleh’s fit in Brooklyn’s switching defense is based on small sample sizes and hypotheticals. There however are signs it can work. On the offensive side of the ball, Vonleh is a fluid player who can attack from the perimeter. His change of direction is quick for a guy of his size and these principles and skills can theoretically be put towards the defensive side of the ball.

Denver switches a lot more than Minnesota. His minutes were limited but he did play 11 minutes against the Lakers just before the Pandemic started. He had this intriguing rep against LeBron James in isolation.

Vonleh shows good footwork and composure to try and keep LeBron in front of him. He’s aware of where the help defense is, and this wasn’t a particularly easy drive for James. There is definitely potential for Vonleh to be switched onto initiating wings. But the number of film clips you could use to back it up are limited. It’s all about projections and theoretical fit.

On the whole though, Vonleh is an excellent defensive communicator. Most Wolves bloggers were in agreement he watched a lot of film. He was always pointing and calling out set plays when he was on the back end. He plays hard, and his footwork on the interior is pretty good. He plays the game in a solid fundamental way and he is worth a punt in the Nets switching scheme.

MB: There’s been much discussion on my side of the world regarding Vonleh’s jumper. Are you buying or selling his ability to stretch the floor?

JH: I wouldn’t say I would be buying his ability to shoot jumpers. At a higher playoff level, he’d likely get the Al Horford treatment that the Bucks gave him in the 18-19 season. Once again this comes down to theoretical value as the sample sizes are too small. His best shooting season was in 17-18 as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers when he was in the 75th percentile for long mid-range efficiency while taking them at a frequency that put him in the 95th percentile. His shooting never really translated in Minnesota, Denver or Chicago though. This possibly suggests his numbers were inflated in Portland by the presence of their elite scoring guards. He inherits a similarly if not laughably better situation with scoring guards in Brooklyn, so his numbers could hold. Once again though, it’s all theoretical.

What should translate is his fluidity. While in New York (with the Knicks), they’d often have him bring the ball up. He can collapse the defense from the perimeter on offense, and he plays within the confines of an offense. He’s a solid screener and an overall smart player on that end. Any semblance of a jump shot obviously increases his value.

I’d suggest that the lower the volume, the more likely he is to be a threat. New York signed him off the back of his mid-range numbers in Portland as they were desperate for floor spacing. His 3-point numbers there were poor. This is often the reality of stretching someone with limited offensive skill out to the three-point line.

MB: What’s the biggest positive that Vonleh brings to the table that the average Nets fan may not be aware of?

JH: I spoke previously about Vonleh’s obvious love for watching defensive film. On offense, he is a similarly smart player who allows set plays to be run. On the whole, the 19-20 Timberwolves offense was a statistically-driven abomination, but the offense had some semblance of schematic presence when Vonleh was on the court. He’s a good PnR screener who is great at executing counters out of dribble hand-offs.

This is a simple play but it’s about the best a low usage center can bring. He’s an excellent screener who is good at creating the smaller margins that can turn a simple play into a genuinely good look. If the Nets want to run a lot of dribble hand-offs then he is a player who can execute them. He can manipulate the defense as a passer in these actions and this is a nice mesh alongside the Nets perimeter threats.

The play above is once again simple, but this could be enough for the Nets on the offensive side of the ball. He’s an intelligent player who studies his opponents’ defensive tendencies. On this play he expects Marko Guduric to over-commit so he just reverses the action.

MB: On the flip side of that, what’re his biggest weaknesses?

JH: His weakness is just that he doesn’t have any real notable skill as a scorer. This is often what keeps role players at their level. He makes up for the lack of star talent with work ethic, film study and doing the little things right. It seems obvious, but at the top level his ceiling is hampered by the fact he won’t be able to punish the defense with anything on offense, unless he miraculously becomes an effective spot-up shooter. The Nets were looking for a low-usage high-impact player though and they may have found him.

MB: Do you like the move as a whole for the Nets?

JH: I’m a fan of the move. I would have liked to see him return to the Timberwolves. His communication on both ends sets a professional standard Minnesota badly needs. He plays within his limitations and does things in the margins that can heighten the floor of a team. He’s a perfect fit next to roaming shooters who might need covering on the defensive end with a soft switching scheme.

MB: Joe, I just want to thank you again for joining me. Your analysis is, as always, fantastic, and I feel much more prepared for the Noah Vonleh iteration of Brooklyn basketball. I’m looking forward to continuing to follow your work this season, and I’m hoping for some better times ahead for our Timberwolves. Lord knows we deserve it.

Folks, give Joe a follow on Twitter here for more breakdowns like this. At all hours of the day, Joe is breaking down film, sharing stats, and contextualizing the more nuanced concepts in basketball, and I can’t recommend staying to date with his work enough.