BOZICH | Indiana's Vonleh Turning Big Three Into Freshman Fab Four
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (WDRB) – I'm not backpedaling from my declaration that we'll be fussing relentlessly about whether Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins or Julius Randle is the best freshman in college basketball from now until April.
I'm just expanding the debate to make it a Freshman Fab Four. And not with Aaron Gordon of Arizona. Add Noah Vonleh to the conversation.
He plays center for Tom Crean's precocious team at Indiana. In four games, all victories, Vonleh has done something that Cody Zeller, D. J. White and Kent Benson did not do for the Hoosiers – start his career with four consecutive double-doubles.
The fourth came Sunday. As storms raged outside Assembly Hall leaving large pockets of seats unfilled for most of the first half, Vonleh played with the poise and persistent determination that freshmen typically cannot maintain.
Vonleh has maintained it. He had 18 points. He had 15 rebounds. He shot 14 free throws. He was a force that Stony Brook could not overcome as the Hoosiers won, 90-74.
In four games Vonleh has averaged 14.8 points and 12.5 rebounds. He's attempted 36 free throws. He's blocked five shots and knocked loose three steals. Vonleh is younger than Parker, Randle or Wiggins, just turning 18 last Aug. 24.
Vonleh knows what Parker, Randle and Wiggins can do from the summer AAU circuit as well as the McDonald's all-American game. Is it time to add him to the Big Three?
"I'm just going to keep playing to the best of my abilities, rebounding, scoring and hopefully I'll get into that category," Vonleh said.
Translation: Vonleh is not comfortable talking his way into the discussion. He prefers to play his way into the headlines. He knows he has to do a better job of demanding the basketball. He also has to make more than six of 14 free throw attempts.
But Crean understands that Vonleh has done things that a freshman is not supposed to do, even if he is 6 feet 10 and 240 pounds with a wingspan of nearly 7-4.
"I wouldn't trade him for anybody in that class and there's a lot of great players and all that kind of stuff," Crean said. "But I'm talking about upside of what he is capable of and what he is willing to do to get there and how much he knows he doesn't know at this point.
"He really wants to be great. He's got a tremendous humility. When you start putting humility into a talented person, now you've got a chance for incredible upside."
At Indiana, the benchmark for inside play is Zeller, who departed as the fourth pick in the 2013 NBA Draft after playing two seasons for the Hoosiers. With Zeller, Victor Oladipo and Christian Watford gone, Indiana had nothing but vacancies in the frontcourt. Vonleh had to be instantly productive.
He has been. Vonleh's 18 points and 15 boards were career highs, but he has grabbed at least 10 rebounds and scored at least 11 points in every game.
Vonleh is not the same kind of player as Zeller. Vonleh gets his points on offensive rebounds. He plants his massive frame on the block, pins his defender and then pivots toward the goal after the basketball rotates in his direction.
Zeller was more likely to sprint past his guy and score in transition. Vonleh looks as if he'll be stronger in the half-court game. He won't be as mobile or elusive as Zeller, but appears more forceful.
"What's enabled him to be so effective on offense is his ability to carve out space," Indiana point guard Yogi Ferrell said. "It's kind of hard for our opponents' post players to try to front him. Once he gets the ball, it's pretty much over.
"He's got such a big body. He does a good job passing out of there. His jump hook is pretty nice. He works on that every day, left and right."
"I wouldn't be surprised to see him have a 30 (points), 30 (rebounds) game," said Bob Hammel, the historian for IU basketball. "He's got tremendous instincts for rebounding."
Some numbers to note: The most free throws Zeller shot during any four-game stretch at IU was 38. Zeller delivered only five double-doubles his entire freshman season.
Vonleh could match that double-double total this week when Indiana travels to Madison Square Garden. This won't be Samford or Chicago State. IU gets Washington Thursday and either Connecticut or Boston College Friday. Those teams are more likely to defend Vonleh will full-sized frontcourt players.
If Vonleh goes to New York City and delivers the way he has delivered in Indiana's first four games, expect the Big Three to become a Fab Four.
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