Noah Vonleh: Armed & Dangerous

The IU freshman already has NBA potential—and the wingspan to reach it.

Editor’s Note, April 4, 2014: “The projections from the NBA have come back at an extremely high level,” says IU head coach Tom Crean of Vonleh, who announced yesterday that he will enter the pro game’s draft after less than a year in Bloomington (see video above).

Last year’s next big thing, Yogi Ferrell of Indiana University, found himself surrounded by a group of reporters who were putting the point guard through a full-court press of questions in late September near the sidelines in Assembly Hall. Ferrell, an Indianapolis native, dribbled his way through the snare of queries—no, he wouldn’t be offering any preseason predictions or the like, thanks for asking—but the sophomore eventually stumbled into a trap. How would the Hoosiers replace Victor Oladipo? Or Cody Zeller? Could they replace them? A man holding a large television camera wanted to know.

Ferrell blinked and then scanned the court, his eyes finally falling to the south goal. There, under the shadows cast by the banners of IU’s five national championships, his gaze landed on this year’s Next Big Thing, Noah Vonleh, and five of his classmates. “We’re going to need those guys to contribute,” said Ferrell, but he cautioned that the freshmen couldn’t yet fully appreciate that the college game—especially basketball in the country’s premier conference—is faster and more physical than anything they had previously experienced.

Maybe. But little seems out of the grasp of Vonleh—literally and figuratively. The 6-foot-10 import from Massachusetts has a freakish 7-foot-4 wingspan, and when he unfurls his arms, it is as if a pterodactyl is preparing for flight. Context: Dwight Howard, the NBA all-star center for the Houston Rockets, nips Vonleh’s wingspan by a fingertip at 7’4.5″. Howard, of course, is a millionaire professional. And, as premature as it is, many are already projecting that Vonleh will be, too.

Depending on the recruiting service, Vonleh ranked as the No. 7 or 8 or 13 player in the Class of 2013, averaged 17 points and 12 rebounds a game as a high-school senior, and played in the McDonald’s High School All-American game (he grabbed six rebounds in 11 minutes). As pleased as he must be with Vonleh’s profile and potential, IU coach Tom Crean seems to most like the thing he doesn’t see: ego. Earlier this year, Crean tweeted that Vonleh is the rare McDonald’s All-American without “entitlement issues” and has praised his work ethic. (An illustration of said ethic: Over the summer, Vonleh spent enough time in the weight room to add 25 pounds to his frame.)

Despite the accolades and compliments, the 18-year-old has kept his focus. “I try not to pay too much attention to that stuff,” he says. But even Crean realizes that Vonleh, if all goes according to plan, might not be in Bloomington for long. In an interview this summer with Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz, the coach said, “He’s going to have the opportunity to leave [for the NBA] at a young age.”

Could Vonleh be Indiana’s first one-and-done player since Eric Gordon was drafted in 2008? Hoosiers fans may fret about it, but first things first—can he replace the frontcourt punch of Zeller? Vonleh won’t touch either question. (“I just keep telling myself to work hard,” he says dutifully.) With that wingspan, though, he certainly could.