It’s no secret that the Minnesota Timberwolves had one major goal in mind in free agency, to lure D’Angelo Russell to the Twin Cities. They famously failed to do so, as Russell changed his mind at the 11th hour to end up with the Golden State Warriors.
As Minnesota pivoted, they made several smaller, shrewd moves that have positioned the 2019-20 Timberwolves to be a more competent bunch than in the past.
One of those shrewd, smaller moves was bringing in Noah Vonleh on a one-year, $2 million contract. Vonleh’s role with Minnesota will be to replace the minutes vacated by Taj Gibson and Dario Saric.
While conventional wisdom would lead one to believe Vonleh is more Gibson than Saric, the beauty of the 24 year old is that he’s a mix of both, with room to add production that has been absent in Minnesota.
To start, up until last season, nearly all of the intrigue around Vonleh was centered around his otherworldly measureables. Vonleh stands 6’10” with a monstrous 7’4” wingspan. He’s used that frame to have success on the glass. While his raw rebounding numbers aren’t eye-popping, the rate stats paint a more impressive picture. For his career, he’s posted a strong 16.5 percent total rebounding rate.
Everybody knows rebounding is important, but it’s especially important for a team that has struggled so much in that area in the past. Rebounding will be the single greatest quality that Vonleh will bring the Wolves’ roster.
What is odd, however, is that for a player with such a large wingspan, his stock numbers are remarkably low. Again, on a per-36 minute basis, Vonleh has posted career averages of 0.9 steals and 0.9 blocks. It’s not that Vonleh necessarily is a bad defender. He’s graded out as an average, mostly neutral defender for his career based off of Defensive Box Plus-Minus. He’s a passable defender, but it’s quite strange for someone that long to be so ineffective at producing deflections.
On the other end of the floor, Vonleh’s role should be limited. He’s always been a net-negative offensively, but there is some value that he can bring. As the rebounding numbers should have indicated before, he’s a force on the offensive glass.
Secondly, he showed an ability to stretch out to the three-point line this past season, making 33.6% of his two 3PA per game. If that shooting is legit, while not out-of-this-world impressive, it is enough to make an opposing defense respect it. This will be important, since Vonleh has not proven to be a solid finisher inside to this point in his career, though he did show improvement in this and many other areas last season with the Knicks.
He set career highs last season in minutes, true shooting percentage, assist percentage, three point attempt rate and free throw attempt rate. Yes, the Knicks were awful which probably afforded him extra opportunities, but it looked like he was finally turning a corner in his career after a disappointing first four seasons with three different teams. The Wolves are hoping that progression continues this season.
The real question for Vonleh — and whoever else plays in the Minnesota front court — is how he will mesh with Karl-Anthony Towns. The idea of playing Vonleh with Towns can be appealing for a few reasons.
First off, the pair can pummel teams on the offensive glass. For a team that is likely to be struggle to create individual offense, extra opportunities will be paramount.
Secondly, if Vonleh proves to be a passable shooter, that opens up the floor for KAT to dig into the post and use his myriad of post moves to destroy opponents. Opening up the floor for KAT, in general, is always going to be a good thing.
Lastly, at Vonleh’s size, he should be able to somewhat fill the Taj Gibson-sized hole in the defense. Vonleh isn’t going to be as good of a communicator and quarterback of the defense as Gibson, but he should be able to hold his own against the bigger, hulkier big men that give Towns such trouble.
Personally, this is who I’d like to see spend the most time alongside KAT in conventional lineups. Jordan Bell has a solid case as well, but I believe the Hoosier will provide the greatest combination of size, defense, and shooting alongside Minnesota’s franchise cornerstone.
Of course, it remains to be seen how often Minnesota will even use a traditional PF, but if Vonleh can give Minnesota 20-25 minutes of passable defense, strong rebounding, and competent shooting, that will be all they can ask for from a guy on a near minimum deal.