In many ways Monday night in Portland was a homecoming for New York Knicks forward Noah Vonleh.
He dapped up old teammates, hugged former coaches, trainers and broadcasters, and finally when he left the visitors locker room he got to embrace his mother and grandmother.
Vonleh’s family moved with him to Portland when he was traded to the Trail Blazers in the summer of 2015. His mother and grandmother still live in the Portland area and his younger sister, Aaronette, is a standout sophomore on the West Linn basketball team.
“She’s a 6-4 DeMarcus Cousins,” Vonleh said giving a mostly serious scouting report before making his way out of the visitors locker room to meet with his waiting family members.
The fans inside the Moda Center, which was Vonleh’s home arena for two half seasons with the Blazers, greeted him with a loud ovation in his first game back in the building as a visitor.
Vonleh finished his reunion game 16 points and 14 rebounds, marking his career-best 13th double-double of the season and his 20th game with double-digit rebounds. He made 5-for-13 shots including 3-of-5 three-pointers, in a performance that demonstrated the strides he has made as a player since he was traded away from Portland and signed with the Knicks.
“I was getting some quality minutes when I was here (in Portland), starting a lot of games my first couple years,” said Vonleh, who signed with New York in offseason after spending the second half of last season with Chicago. “So just building that foundation and then free agency was a little tough. Getting that opportunity to go to New York with Coach Fiz and a bunch of young guys here I thought it’d be something special. And I just kept growing as a player.”
With the Blazers, Vonleh vacillated somewhere between intriguing project to solid role player miscast as a starter. He has broadened his arsenal with the Knicks where he has been given the free to launch from the beyond the arc and grab rebounds and dribble up the court on his own. His growth as a player even in just 40 games in New York has stood out to the Knicks coaching staff.
“His evolution,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said when asked what he appreciates most about the 23-year-old Vonleh prior to the game. “His openness to growing and being coached. His work ethic has been fantastic.”
With New York, Vonleh is averaging career-highs in points (8.9), rebounds (6.8) and assists (2.1) and playing a career-high 26.8 minutes a night. The 10-30 Knicks are firmly in a rebuilding phase, but there are plenty of nights when Vonleh looks like their best player. He says the freedom he has in New York has helped him expand and improve his game.
That improvement hasn’t been lost on Vonleh’s former teammates and coaches.
“It means a lot to me honestly,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “I’d like to think that we gave him a good base. I thought the work that our assistant coaches did with (him) in the time that he was here helped give a foundation for some success down the road.”
“I’ve been watching a lot of their games because I think he’s in a situation where he finally has the freedom to show what he can do,” added Blazers guard Damian Lillard. “And sometimes that opportunity is what guys need. So being with him so many years, you want to see that for him. I’m happy for him, really happy for him.”
When Vonleh came out on the court for pregame warmups he jumped right into a ball handling routine, neglecting to cross onto the Blazers half of the floor and say hello to Lillard and Blazers assistant David Vanterpool. Lillard immediately started harassing his friend and former teammate for his failed greeting. It was a fitting scene for Vonleh’s night in Portland. The reunion could wait until after the buzzer. For a player still sharpening his game, the work had to come first.