HAVERHILL, Mass. -- Slung high in the bleachers above his junior varsity teammates is the can't-miss kid everyone's here to see, all six-foot-seven of him, his black military jacket accenting a loud, fat mohawk that covers the crown of his skull. Noah Vonleh is looking intently over an assistant coach's shoulder as he goes over the game plan for 30 minutes from now against these host No. 8 Andover High Golden Warriors, at once seemingly acutely aware and indifferent that slowly the crowd is gathering for perhaps a few reasons, but a glaring one in particular: him.
Long-time Syracuse associate head coach Bernie Fine is here for him. So is his AAU coach, Vin Pastore. So are a few other lower-level scouts, high school assistants from further down the schedule, and two rowdy student sections, armed with newspaper clippings, matching shirts, air horns and even a bass kick drum.
And they watch as the 6-foot-7 forward with the 7-foot wingspan repeatedly carries the ball upcourt, through a strenuous press, and either throws the ball to the corner or creates space on the perimeter with the drive-and-kick, only to watch those efforts turn into bricks, airballs and turnovers. As the tallest, longest, and certainly most athletic kid on the court, Vonleh merely reaches his arms out and slaps loose balls back out to the perimeter -- but again, only to watch shot after shot clank off the iron.
He racks up his first foul, an offensive, just a minutes into the game; a second foul, this one defensive, comes with two minutes to go in the quarter. And he quietly retires to the bench, with nary a shrug. No hands in the air, no stomping of the feet.
It isn't until late in the game we see Vonleh's best exploits. Down 17 and turning things up furiously, Vonleh takes to the post, where he takes high entry lobs and repeatedly draws contact fouls from help defenders. The Hillies wound up losing this season-opener, 59-50, thanks to some impressive hustle plays from Andover's gritty leader Joe Bramanti, but the most impressive play might have been the final one. With just seconds left, his teammate decides to throw up one final three point attempt, but the trajectory of the shot screams airball. Vonleh, playing the Lorenzo Charles to his Dereck Wittenburg, instinctively grabs it out of the air and forcefully slams it home, drawing a ring of ooh's and ahh's from the crowd making its way to the exit signs.
Right now, it seems, Vonleh's talents are being handled at Haverhill like a Faberge egg. But then again, a skill set like this for a 15-year-old only comes around once a generation in the Merrimack Valley.
Vonleh, currently ranked the No. 26 overall prospect nationally for the Class of 2013 by ESPN, has improved by leaps and bounds over the last year. Playing with the Rivals AAU program -- headed by Pastore and featuring Division 1 talent that last summer included Ryan Canty, Zach Auguste and Jordan Laguerre -- Vonleh wowed scouts with his ability to fit into any position one through four on the floor, create his own shot, penetrate and finish off the dribble-drive.
St. John's Prep guard Pat Connaughton, himself an ESPN100 player committed to Notre Dame, recalled an impressive display by Vonleh -- playing for the Rivals -- in a matchup this fall against Connaughton's Middlesex Magic. He said Vonleh was "the best player on their team" and was "the one that gave us the most trouble". To Connaughton, Vonleh was "almost like a point guard for them", dribbling with his head up.
"His ability to dribble, and then go from a dribble into a pull-up, for a big kid like that, usually when you’re big like that you’re put into big man positions all your life," Connaughton said. "So for a kid that size to be that skilled with the ball, to be able to dribble the ball through the legs and then right into a pull-up like a guard is really, very good for him."
Within the ten-team Merrimack Valley Conference, annually one of the state's deepest and most competitive, and producer of two of the last three state champions, Vonleh is drawing even greater prose among the league's coaching minds.
"Oh my God, yeah, he’s a puppy. He’s not even 80 to 90 percent of where he’s gonna be," Andover head coach Dave Fazio said following the win over the Hillies. "I mean, he’s just a puppy. He’s trying to run a point with five tough Andover defenders aware of every step he makes, he can’t gap us because we’re not gonna let him gap us. He’s being asked to do an awful lot. His skill set is going to be through the roof. You put him with kids of his caliber, I mean he’s just going to be a terrific player. I mean terrific, terrific player."
The list adjectives already used to described his seemingly limitless potential goes on and on. And with his big hands and feet, and his frame not quite yet filled out, there is still some growing to do. All of that, and more, has drawn scholarship offers from Boston College and Pitt, and has schools as high as Syracuse, Kentucky and North Carolina have shown interest.
His best days, it seems, are straight ahead.
Renell Vonleh moved to Salem, Mass. from Liberia in 1994, after spending some time in the neighboring Ivory Coast when Civil War broke out in the late 80's and early 90's. Today, she finds herself raising Noah and his sisters Samnell (14) and Aaronette (7) as a single mother working nearly 80 hours a week as a registered nurse, split between Jamaica Plain's Lemuel Shattuck Hospital and Sherrill House.
That often leaves Noah as the man of the house, but there's little goofing around. Renell finds time on Sundays to take Noah and his sisters to either New Life Christian Assembly in Haverhill, or the Evangelical Christian Church in Peabody; and while she is at work, there is work to be done at home.
"Basically basketball is his focus, but he has to have a balance," Renell said. "He has to pay attention to his studies, build up character. It’s a work in progress, but for the most part he’s a good kid."
Noah speaks quietly, and sparingly, in short sentences, when spoken to. His goals? "I'm trying to get to that number one spot," he says sheepishly.
His reaction to the hype surrounding him? "I'm just trying to live up to it."
And so forth. But when it comes to dribbling, Noah is far from shy.
Growing up watching highlight clips of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, and now keying on the likes of LeBron James and Tyreke Evans, Noah is known to get up in the middle of the night and take to the wood living room floor at his Lakewood Terrace house. Sometimes as late as midnight, he might move some furniture out of the way, throw on some classic hip-hop albums -- a little Illmatic here, a little Ready to Die there -- and go through all the crossovers, spins and euro-steps he's fond of on the court.
Mom's cool with it, though she's had to replace the floor.
"Whenever I don’t do my dribbling drills (at practice), I don’t feel complete without them, so I’ll do them at any time of night," Noah says.
Says Haverhill head coach Mike Trovato, "Religiously, for 45 minutes to an hour, he's ballhandling, it just shows. That doesn’t come overnight. His hours are sometimes you call him at his house and you hear the ball bouncing in the background."
Sometimes, he'll even venture down the street to a dimly-lit court and practice his three-point shot. Other times, he'll get in up to 500 shots in a day, whether someone's rebounding for him or not.
"He'll come from working out with coaches, and two hours later he wants to work out again," Renell said. "Sometimes at midnight outside house in neighborhood shooting and practicing three-pointers, I have to tell him he has to be respectful of neighbors."
That intrinsic motivation, it seems, is what separates him.
"He's got a God-given talent, you know, and hes a bright kid," says Pastore, who's been coaching Vonleh since the fifth grade. "And I think he recognizes he has some tools from God, and he wants to make best of him. Work ethic is clearly a talent some kids have and some don’t, and he's got as good a work ethic as anybody I've coached."
Alluding to former McDonald's All-American and Central Catholic star Scott Hazelton, himself a Rivals alum who now helps coach Vonleh, Pastore continued, "Scott was a work-a-holic, but Noah’s talents are well beyond Scott’s. God’s gift, you know. I really do think that."
The question at this point isn't what Vonleh can do, it's what to do with him.
Vonleh projects to play either forward position, and with such versatility amongst a young supporting cast this is a team that will rely heavily on his talents. And with that in mind, the No. 14 Hillies have stumbled out of the gates; two nights ago, they fell to 1-3 after a 53-49 lost to Pentucket, a second straight loss that will almost assuredly drop them out of the MIAA Top 25 when the new poll is released on Monday.
The road doesn't get any easier, either. With matchups next week against Everett and No. 10 Cambridge in the BABC Holiday Classic, the Hillies could be looking at 1-5 headed into the beginning of January. Being in the Merrimack Valley Conference's Large division means they'll be facing Andover again, and have two more games coming against No. 2 Central Catholic and No. 16 Lowell. This could very well be a .500 season for the Hillies, with such a young core.
That won't stop all the ink, all the hype in its tracks. But Trovato feels Noah knows better.
"I think he’s smart enough to know, it’s that ‘P’ word –- potential," Trovato said. "He can be great, or he can be awful. And I'm sure some people are never going to hit it. And I really don’t, we’ve been around a lot of kids from a lot of different areas, and I think Noah’s definitely one of those kids that’s going to keep working.
"He loves to play, and that’s what I tell college coaches. The best thing about him is he loves to play. Morning, night, anytime. You call him to go play, he drops what he’s doing to go play."
Said Pastore, "He’s off the charts in so many categories, the only thing he's got left is time. That will take care of the rest. When Pitt walks into the gym...there's nobody [college coaches] that they don’t leave without saying they love him."
And that love, that intrinsic love, has the attention of many eyes. They can't wait to see what he does next.