Imagine being a team that shocked the NBA world last season. The Portland Trail Blazers took the moniker of underdog and turned it into a rallying cry all the way to the second round of the playoffs last season. This was done without the services of their star player LaMarcus Aldridge. Led by Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and a host of players who played their role to a tee then almost make a bolder statement against the Golden State Warriors.
But it wasn’t meant to be.
The Blazers knew they had to get bigger in the post and that meant finding a player that could defend. When free agency opened, they opened their wallets for former Warriors reserve, Festus Ezeli. However, Ezeli never played a minute for the Blazers this season due to injury and the team suffered for a lack of post presence. Something had to be done. The Blazers traded Mason Plumlee to the Denver Broncos for Jusuf Nurkic and all of a sudden the Blazers took off.
They not only improved their winning but their defensive ranking as well. Nurkic averaged 15 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks in his 20 games with the Blazers. Those numbers coupled with the pressure taken of off Lillard and McCollum allowed the team to play freely and the results have been one heck of a turnaround.
But then tragedy struck.
Nurkic went down with an injury and now the Blazers are left to scramble to keep their playoff hopes alive. The backcourt is still producing but there are no bigs left on the roster to protect the pain. The Blazers are putting their playoff hopes on the shoulders of 21-year old Noah Vonleh. Coming into the season he was viewed as a project that could be a good player later down the line as he had to wait his turn. Vonleh was buried in the rotation behind Maurice Harkless, Ed Davis, Meyers Leonard, Plumlee and then Nurkic.
However, with Davis out for the year and Leonard not suited to bang with the big bodies, Vonleh is left as the Blazers true defensive presence. For a player that has averaged a modest 15 minutes per game for his career, he’s now being asked to play 30+. In his last six games, he has grabbed 50 rebounds and scored 31 points. The offense is not a major concern, it’s the defense and rebounding the Blazers are looking for.
Vonleh needs time to adjust and focus on the bigger picture. This is not the time to look for a big contract as his focus must be on the teams’ success. He has to patrol the paint as if his life depended on the outcome. His lack of blocked shots or shots altered must improve if the Blazers are to enter the playoffs without Nurkic.
Vonleh has no choice. His team needs him to be the player they hope he can be. They just need him to get their faster than expected.