The NBA Draft has become a mystery in the quarter-century since Kevin Garnett changed the norm by coming directly out of high school to be the fifth overall choice for the Timberwolves in 1995.
Rapidly, the draft became more about projection and less about the knowledge obtained in watching a player compete in college. Even the one-and-done rule for draft eligibility the NBA was able to institute in 2006 didn’t change the pattern of teams taking their best guess, once the top few picks were selected.
There are 353 Division I basketball schools occupying every cranny of the United States, and there are eligible players all over Europe, and it remains astounding how soon an NBA draft can go from sure-things to suspects.
Noah Vonleh played one season as a 6-foot-9 center for Indiana in 2013-14. The rebuilding Hoosiers went 7-11 in the Big Ten, lost the conference tournament opener to Illinois and missed both the NCAA and NIT.
Vonleh averaged 11.3 points and nine rebounds – solid for a Big Ten freshman, but no more than that. Heck, he was outplayed by big ol’ Mo Walker when the Hoosiers lost 66-60 that winter in Williams Arena.
How does that get Vonleh drafted No. 9 overall by Charlotte in the 2014 draft? As a suspect, obviously, and more evidence as to how quickly the NBA Draft can run out of impact players.
Vonleh was 19 during his first NBA season. He played in 25 games for Charlotte, spent time with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, and then was traded with Gerald Henderson to Portland for Nic Batum. He also had stops with Chicago and the Knicks, before signing a one-year, $2 million contract with the Wolves for this season.
Five teams in Season 6 for the No. 9 overall selection in the draft? No wonder the NBA is the world leader in teams trying to tank for Ping Pong balls, when a draft can be that thin.
The Timberwolves started the season determined to find out if Vonleh could contribute as the backup to center Karl-Anthony Towns. That task had fallen largely to Gorgui Dieng in KAT’s previous four seasons.
The Woofs played four games in October. Dieng played in only one, for six minutes, and Vonleh had 55 minutes.
It took Towns’ two-game suspension for throwing a punch in the direction of Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid to get Dieng out of limbo. He started and played 41 minutes in those two games. Vonleh played 29 minutes as Gorgui’s backup.
Since then, it has been unpredictable as to coach Ryan Saunders’ choice as the main backup at center. For instance:
Last Saturday, Vonleh played 13:10 and Dieng didin’t play in a 125-105 loss to Houston at Target Center. On Monday, Dieng played 14:37 and Vonleh didn’t play in the 112-102 road upset at Utah. Dieng helped with eight points, five rebounds, two assists, a block and a steal.
Why Gorgui on Monday, Saunders was asked?
“Mostly, rim protection,’’ he said. “Utah’s a team that likes to take it to the basket. Gorgui’s taller than Noah, plus we liked his experience against a team like Utah.’’
Saunders said his preference is to go into games with a 10-player rotation. That meant Dieng sitting in four of the first 14 games, and playing fewer than eight minutes in three others. Vonleh had his first “DNP’’ on Monday.
“A lot of it is matchups, obviously, but Noah also earned his time at the start of the season,’’ Saunders said. “He came in for KAT and was effective offensively. He moves well and had shown an ability to shoot the three in the past.
“I’ve always been a Gorgui fan, too. I think that both Gorgui and Noah are going to be getting minutes most nights.’’
Saunders said this before Wednesday's rematch with Utah, won 103-95 by the Jazz. Once again, Dieng played as Towns' backup, going a plus-12 in 15 minutes, when his contributions were seven rebounds and three blocked shots. And Vonleh had his second consecutive DNP.
Dieng started all 82 games in combo with Towns in 2016-17, Tom Thibodeau’s first season as coach. The post-Thibs Wolves are playing a completely different style, with the emphasis on a fast pace and firing threes that has required a smaller lineup.
One thing the Wolves know for sure: Dieng, soon to be 30, isn’t going anywhere before the end of the 2020-21 schedule. Gorgui is making $16.2 million now and is due another $17.3 million for next season.
That’s not a contract to be moved, especially for a player splitting time with Vonleh, already a journeyman at age 24.