Charlotte Hornets: Steve Clifford says team shouldn’t force-feed minutes to rookie Noah Vonleh

rbonnell@charlotteobserver.comJuly 15, 2014 

— Developing Charlotte Hornets rookie Noah Vonleh is important. Just don’t confuse “important” with “urgent.”

On draft night, when the 6-foot-10 Indiana forward fell through the top eight picks, the Hornets felt they couldn’t afford to pass on Vonleh’s potential. Between the arm-length (a 7-foot-4 wingspan), footwork and skills, he has long-term potential to be a cornerstone player for Charlotte.

But note the phrase “long term.” He’s still 18 years old, having turned pro after a single season of college basketball. Coach Steve Clifford has no expectation of immediate impact from Vonleh. To presume otherwise, Clifford said, is unfair to Vonleh and his teammates.

“If you’re going to take younger guys, you’ve got to give them time to grow and put them in situations where they can grow at the pace that works for them,” Clifford said of Vonleh’s situation.

“We have to have Noah’s best interest and progress in mind. At the same time, he’s affected by our results on the floor. We’re trying to win. It’s not fair to throw him out there night after night against starters. That’s also not fair to Al Jefferson, Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, etc. All the parts have to work together.”

Vonleh says he gets Clifford’s point that throwing him into situations before he’s ready could prove more negative than positive. Also, he appreciates the Hornets are coming off a 43-39 record and a playoff appearance.

The Hornets had the chance to draft him only because of a pre-existing trade with the Detroit Pistons that resulted in the ninth pick.

“Charlotte is a team that got into the playoffs and the lottery – you don’t have a lot of teams like that,” Vonleh said Tuesday after a summer-league practice. “They’re looking to make the playoffs, and I have to be patient and wait for minutes.

“If minutes are on the table, I think I’ll be ready to play. But I don’t know that I’ll get all the minutes I’d imagine getting in years to come.”

Vonleh has shown glimpses of his potential: He grabbed 18 rebounds in a game Sunday against the Sacramento Kings. But Vonleh acknowledged Tuesday the physicality of summer league is a big change from college ball. It will be that much more so in regular-season NBA games.

Adjustments such as that are why Clifford is against force-feeding minutes to rookies.

“I can make a really healthy argument that sometimes when guys are given too much (opportunity) they haven’t worked for, it very much hurts their development,” Clifford said.

That doesn’t mean Clifford isn’t vested in Vonleh’s future. Much the contrary.

“The hardest thing to get in this league is guys at the top of your lineup,” he said. “Any opportunity you have to get somebody who could be your first- or second- or third-best player, you’ve got to do it.

“He has ability at both ends of the floor to be one of those top-three guys.”

Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell

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