Tom Sorensen

June 27, 2014

Top pick Noah Vonleh could have a big hand in Hornets’ success

Shake hands with the Charlotte Hornets’ Noah Vonleh and his hand is all you see. Your hand disappears. So does your wrist and part of your forearm.

Shake hands with Noah Vonleh and his hand is all you see. Your hand disappears. So does your wrist and part of your forearm.

Measured at the NBA combine, Vonleh’s hands were an almost unfathomable 11 1/2 inches wide. Take a piece of 8 1/2-by-11 paper and put your hand on it. Vonleh’s hand is wider than the paper is long. If you’re reading this story in the Observer, the page on which you read it is 11 inches wide. If we ran a picture of Vonleh’s hand, it would start on the front and be continued on a page inside.

Charlotte didn’t select Vonleh with the ninth pick in the NBA draft because he has giant hands. The Hornets took him because of what they believe he can do with them.

Vonleh, who doesn’t turn 19 until August, averaged 11.3 points and a Big Ten leading nine rebounds last season as a freshman for a mediocre Indiana team. He played only 26 1/2 minutes a game.

Within those minutes, however, were games, halves, possessions and moments that made scouts jump and shout. Maybe it was a block or maybe it was a 3-pointer – he took 33 of them and hit 16. Maybe he went to his left or right to beat a defender off the dribble, impressive for a man 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds.

Says Charlotte general manager Rich Cho: Vonleh has “a unique game because he’s a big man that can play inside and out, he can post up, he can shoot from outside, he’s got a perimeter game, he can hit the occasional 3 … He’s also a very, very good ball-handler for his size.”

Vonleh was projected to be drafted before the ninth pick, but projection doesn’t matter. What matters is where you go.

Cho stayed in contact with Vonleh’s agent, Jeff Schwartz, trying to gauge which teams were interested.

When Vonleh slipped to nine, Charlotte pounced and coach Steve Clifford clapped. Clifford then texted power forward Josh McRoberts, a free agent the team hopes to re-sign, and power forward Cody Zeller to explain that the pick had nothing to do with them.

“I was just happy to be able to say my dream came true being drafted into the NBA,” says Vonleh. “So I was happy no matter where I went.”

Vonleh and fellow first-round pick P.J. Hairston sit at a table at Time Warner Cable Arena Friday with Cho between them. Hairston is looser, more at ease and more likely to joke.

Vonleh speaks softly. He looks slender in his suit, but slender players don’t lead the Big Ten in rebounding.

“He’s quiet, hard-working, goal-driven and just a good, respectful kid who’s determined to succeed in whatever he does,” says his mom, Renell Kumeh.

Growing up in Haverhill, Mass., Vonleh wasn’t an immediate basketball star.

“No, he started out about the age of 7,” says Kumeh. “He sat on the sidelines waiting and hoping someone would give him a chance. But he was determined to succeed, so he went to the gym two, three times a day and he watched a lot of TV – the draft and championships and NBA games.”

Did you push him?

“That was his dream and his dream only,” Kumeh says. “He wanted to do it and he did it.”

Vonleh participates in a group interview and then individual interviews with television reporters and then, via cell phone, does a talk show in Raleigh. Before his next round of obligations, Vonleh and I talk in an arena hallway.

“I started playing basketball at a young age,” he says. “I had to work at it. I played a lot of YMCA boys’ league basketball and started to grow as a player. It took off from there and in eighth grade that’s where I realized I could really do something special with this game.

“I was 6-4, 6-5, just handling the ball and dunking the ball. I was 13 and doing some pretty good things and people were really impressed. I got my first (recruiting) letter from Syracuse.”

Later, North Carolina, Hairston’s school, recruited him. Why wouldn’t they?

As a high school sophomore guard/point forward, Vonleh averaged 18.4 points, 17 rebounds, seven assists and five blocks.

“No matter what happened, win or lose, I always wanted to stay around the gym and keep improving my game,” says Vonleh. “If you’re going to be good or great you have to stay in the gym and outwork people.

“I just want to be great. Just see guys like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, when you see the work they put in to get to where they are.”

Did anything scare you about leaving Indiana after one season to turn pro?

You have to hand it to him. He says no.

“I always wanted to play in the NBA,” Vonleh says. “And the opportunity was right in front of me.”

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