Commentary

Vonleh right at home with C's

Haverhill native could find himself earning a familiar green jersey on draft night

Updated: June 12, 2014, 12:23 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

WALTHAM, Mass. -- When Wednesday's workout for his hometown Boston Celtics was complete, Noah Vonleh wandered to one corner of the practice gymnasium and plopped down next to assistant coach Walter McCarty.

Now, Vonleh was only 2 when McCarty got traded to Boston in 1997, but like anyone raised on late-'90s/early-2000s hoops in these parts, Vonleh is plenty familiar with the "I love Waltah!" era of Celtics basketball.

The two 6-foot-10 hoopsters engaged in some small talk, maybe some Indiana chatter considering the Hoosier State is where McCarty grew up and where Vonleh played his college ball. With the possibility that Boston might target Vonleh with the No. 6 pick in this month's draft, McCarty dispensed some advice about where Vonleh might live if he played for the Celtics.

[+] EnlargeNoah Vonleh
AP Photo/Kiichiro SatoNoah Vonleh uses his long reach and huge hands (11.25 inches wide) to block shots -- like this one during the Big Ten Conference tournament in March.

"All the workouts were pretty good, but this one just had a little bit more meaning to it because it's my hometown," said Vonleh, a native of Haverhill, Mass., who played two seasons of high school ball for his hometown Hillies before prepping at New Hampton in New Hampshire.

"Not everybody gets a chance to work out for their hometown team. This is a great opportunity," he said.

Celtics director of player personnel Austin Ainge remembers watching Vonleh compete against his younger brother, Crew, in high school and knew Vonleh would be at the NBA level sooner than later. Now, here's Vonleh, just 18 years old with a gargantuan wingspan (7-foot-5), monster vertical (37 inches), and freakish hands (11.25 inches wide), ready to hear his name called in the high lottery.

"Obviously, being local here, we've heard about him for a long time," said Ainge. "He played in my little brother Crew's high school conference. I saw him play there a few times. He's a very intriguing player, a lot of physical tools, but very young."

How has his game changed since just a few years back?

"If you go back and look at some YouTube clips and highlight mix-tapes that they put on the Internet from his high school days, he's already gotten a lot stronger and he is going to be a very strong kid," said Ainge. "He's got a big frame, big legs and shoulders. The physicality has definitely improved. His shooting has improved. One thing you can see from him in high school is he can handle the ball a lot. He played center this year in Indiana, but he played on the perimeter in high school. He can actually dribble pretty well."

As a high schooler, it was Vonleh scouring YouTube for highlight mixes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James, then practicing all his dribbling moves on his mother's living room floor. Eventually, the floor had to be replaced.

Vonleh said Wednesday that he can see himself playing some small forward at the NBA level because of his dribbling and shooting talents. Ainge said he envisions Vonleh primarily as a power forward, but watching what Kawhi Leonard has done for the San Antonio Spurs, some teams might just consider the possibility of Vonleh playing some wing.

What Vonleh is trying to do on his workout circuit is show what separates him from the other power forward types -- namely Aaron Gordon and Julius Randle -- that are expected to be swooped up in the early-to-mid lottery.

[+] EnlargeJulius Erving and Noah Vonleh
Jennifer Pottheiser/Getty ImagesJulius Erving compares hand size with Vonleh at a reception prior to the 2014 NBA Draft Lottery last month.

"They're all very different," said Ainge. "I'll tell you, Noah put up very good rebounding numbers this year. And he shot well from the 3-point line with limited attempts. And he blocked shots pretty well. So those are obviously very important things, and he's one of the youngest players in the draft. I want to say third or fourth. He's still 18 years old. There's a lot of room for growth."

Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who put Vonleh and five other bigs through Wednesday's workout, came away impressed by how Vonleh handled himself, particularly in a group that featured a couple of 7-footers (Baylor's Isaiah Austin and Russia's Artem Klimenko).

"Noah has got a great, great frame, as you can see," said Stevens. "He's strong, he's long. He's got really strong legs. He's a physical guy. He's probably even more physical than I thought when I saw him in person. He's obviously a really good player. His reputation speaks for itself."

For Vonleh, this was his fourth workout after sessions with the Lakers, Kings, and Magic. He's spaced out his workouts to preserve his body and afford himself the opportunity to put his best foot forward. Vonleh suggested that Boston could be his final workout, but is considering adding sessions with the 76ers and Jazz, two of the teams currently sitting in front of Boston.

While many believe the top four spots are cemented in next month's draft, it's the Jazz at No. 5 that are most likely to determine if the Celtics have a shot at Vonleh one spot later. Many consider Vonleh the second best big in the draft behind Kansas' Joel Embiid, but the scouting report invariably notes that he's young and raw, the not-so-subtle suggestion that it's going to take time for him to contribute consistently at both ends at the NBA level.

Vonleh has prepped for these draft workouts by logging extended time with Indiana's assistant strength and conditioning coach Seth Cooper. The two have worked tirelessly on his jumper and extending his range, along with ball-handling and all the things that scouts still nitpick with his game.

He'll head back to Long Island soon to continue his individual workouts in advance of the draft on June 26, but not before a rare chance to sleep in his own bed and visit with his family, including two sisters.

Vonleh laughed when a reporter asked about how members of the national media often mess up the pronunciation of his native Haverhill. If he played in these parts, he wouldn't have to worry about that.

"It would be a blessing, being able to stay home, play in front of my friends and family," said Vonleh.

For now, he's just savoring a brief stop back in these parts.

"I'm going home tonight. That'll be good," said Vonleh. "I haven't been home for a while."

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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