A little more than six weeks after returning to his original class of 2013, Noah Vonleh made a huge commitment to Indiana on Saturday night. While Vonleh has been all over the news this fall, the story that is much less known, but far more relevant to his future, is the unique way he has developed as a player.
The first time I saw Vonleh play was at the Scott Hazelton Basketball Camp in August of 2009, only weeks before his 14th birthday and his freshman year of high school. I’ve never been a big believer in labeling players at such a young age, but in Vonleh’s case his talent was too obvious to mistake.
He was playing with kids three and four years his senior, many of whom were Division I prospects. Five minutes into the run, the 6-foot-3 Vonleh caught the ball on the right wing, took one long dribble through the lane, cradled the ball through contact and finished on the other side of the rim with great touch.
It was as impactful a single play as I can remember in terms of evaluating a prospect because it was effortless, instinctive, and totally raw. Vonleh didn’t know what he was doing or even realize he’d done anything out of the ordinary.
Three years later and Vonleh has become one of the nation’s top prospects. That development is a consequence of his natural talent, but more than that, its evidence of one of the most strategic plans I’ve ever seen when it comes to developing a young prospect.
Dating back to his first days in high school, Vonleh and his Mass Rivals AAU coach, Vin Pastore, had a daily routine. It typically began with Pastore picking Vonleh up from school and immediately focusing on Vonleh’s schoolwork. Then the two were off to the gym where they’d work on stationary ballhandling, two-ball dribbling, dribble moves and the “Mikan drill.”
“I was always a believer that if Noah could dribble and handle the basketball, there would be a place on the court for him at the highest level,” Pastore said, “and as a 6-foot-3 eighth grader with significant length, he committed himself to that daily routine.”
But what was truly unique wasn’t the work itself, but the way in which Pastore applied those principals under game conditions. Virtually anytime Vonleh caught the ball, Pastore demanded he attack the defense. Because of the intensity behind Pastore’s style, some wrote off the approach as shear madness, but in reality it was anything but.
“He needs to learn to play with an aggressive mindset,” Pastore told me at the time. “Once that’s in place, we can go back and teach him to make the right decisions.”
It was an approach I’d never seen before in basketball, and I was admittedly skeptical. Sure Pastore had developed the likes of Evan Smotrycz, Carson Desrosiers, and Zach Auguste, but the aggression in which he demanded from Vonleh was on a new level.
Nevertheless, as weeks turned into months, Vonleh’s handle and confidence developed at a rapid rate and soon thereafter his ability to create off the dribble became his calling card.
With his handle now an undeniable weapon, Pastore widened the scope of his lens to address Vonleh’s very inconsistent jump shot. While the budding star had flawed technique and poor results from long range, Pastore insisted that he had the “touch” to develop that area of his game as well.
Their daily routines then grew, beginning with the same ball-handling and Mikan drills, but now including a series of jump-shots and concluding with a daily one-on-one bout with older prospects like Smotrycz, Desrosiers, Auguste, or even Hazelton, a former McDonald’s All-American who had just returned from a stint playing overseas. By the following AAU season, his shooting mechanics had improved noticeably and defenders were forced to respect him out to the arc.
While Vonleh was developed as a swingman, his body was that of a young big man in that he had a great natural frame but was a late bloomer. Things finally started to click for him physically in the fall of his junior season when he suddenly became much more explosive in the paint. Pastore again adjusted his approach accordingly, and became equally adamant that Vonleh assert himself on the defensive end of the floor. So Vonleh started to become the dangerous shot-blocker and ferocious rebounder that we know today.
Something else significant happened in the fall of 2011. Vonleh transferred to the New Hampton School, initially reclassifying to 2014, but more importantly, joining up with another coach who had a reputation for player development, Peter Hutchins.
Pastore and Hutchins had very different approaches, but the contrast had a long history of paying dividends for guys like Smotrycz, Auguste, and Jordan Laguerre, among others. Vonleh would be no different.
While Pastore continued to encourage Vonleh to develop that attacking mentality on the AAU circuit, Hutchins began to develop his court awareness and basketball I.Q. When he was away at prep school he was constantly on the court with Hutchins and when he was home on weekends or breaks he was back to his routine with Pastore.
Hutchins also began to encourage the development of Vonleh’s and shortly thereafter the now 6-foot-9 forward had added a raw, but already dangerous, post-repertoire. A nagging ankle injury forced him to show those new talents out of necessity last spring, and it was in the finals of the Providence Jam Fest that an obviously limited Vonleh led the Rivals to a title by scoring with jumps hooks over both shoulders and passing out of double teams to find shooters on the perimeter.
When Vonleh spoke to RecruitingNation about his commitment to Indiana, one of his biggest points of emphasis was that Tom Crean had a plan to develop his game. That resonated with Vonleh and ultimately played a big part in his decision.
When it comes to his potential, the full story of his past development creates even more anticipation for his future. This is a young man who has added new wrinkles to his game at each step along the way, been very well coached and consequently conditioned to embrace that instruction. The sum total is a player who is already one of the most talented prospects in the country but still has his best basketball in front of him.