rakes_take_400It could be a double dose of bad news in March for Indiana basketball fans.

There’s the reality that an NCAA tournament bid might not be coming. There are still 11 league games and a conference tournament in your own backyard to help change the Hoosiers’ postseason fate. But as of now, this isn’t a team that will see their name announced in the field of 68.

But there’s something that could be even more of a certainty than the team’s postseason destination. And that’s Noah Vonleh’s pro future, which appears to be starting sooner than most Hoosier fans would have hoped for heading into the season.

A quick check of numerous NBA draft websites and experts show Vonleh all but certain to hear his name called early in the first round if he elects to leave after just one year in Bloomington. In examining six different sites (ESPN, CBSSports, SI, Bleacher Report, NBADraft.net, and DraftExpress.com), only one had Vonleh being taken outside of the lottery, with NBADraft.net slotting Vonleh at 16th in their latest mock draft from two weeks ago. DraftExpress.com had Vonleh projected as the eighth overall selection, with the remaining mock drafts placing the talented freshman somewhere between ninth and 13th in the opening round.

Guaranteed contracts go to any player taken in the first round. For the sake of determining the amount of money Vonleh could make in his first NBA contract, let’s average the potential draft positions listed in the above paragraph. The average slot listed above would be the 11th pick of the opening round, which last year, was good for two years guaranteed at a total of $4.5 million, with three additional years as part of team options and a qualifying offer worth an additional $10 million.

It would be awfully hard to turn that down, wouldn’t it?

This year’s draft class is thought to be one of the deeper talent pools in recent memory. In other years, Vonleh’s status might have been even higher, and this decision might have been even more of a certainty.

In terms of analyzing Vonleh as a player, could he use an additional year of seasoning to become more NBA ready? Of course he could. Knowing that his primary skill set at the start of his pro career will be as a rebounder and shot blocker due his great length, another year to mature physically would be a benefit. And the offensive game is certainly a work in progress, yet Vonleh’s stats now are pretty solid. He’s shooting 54 percent from the field, and has been effective while be judicious from three point range, making 10 of 18 this year. Plus, I’m a big fan of any big man that can make free throws, of which Vonleh has done to the tune of connecting on 72 percent of attempts at the line this year.

What’s been most impressive about Vonleh to me is the consistency he has shown throughout the year. As he was compiling double-doubles in bunches during non-conference play, I wondered if he could keep the same pace in league action. He has. In fact, Vonleh’s overall season averages in points and rebounds are virtually identical for the season and in Big Ten games only. The points per game average is at 12 for both, and the rebound numbers have gone up slightly, 9.7 during league play, while at 9.6 for the season in its entirety.

And in the last three league games, Vonleh has averaged 13 rebounds a night. He might have only scored four points against an Illinois team that threw a zone at the Hoosiers for a large chunk of yesterday’s win, yet he was a major factor in the game by snaring 14 rebounds. For the struggles Indiana has had this season, rebounding has not been one of them. The Hoosiers are outboarding opponents by 10.9 rebounds a game, good for fourth-best in Division I. The difference was plus-13 in favor of Indiana against the Illini, with the visitors claiming just four offensive rebounds in the game.

Could Vonleh return for one more year in Bloomington? Of course, Cody Zeller turned down a high draft position to play as a sophomore a season ago. Then again, Zeller returned in part because he’s a home-state kid and that group has aspirations of winning a national championship. There will be improvement expected a season from now in Bloomington, but I don’t think anyone is planning on a 2015 banner being added to Assembly Hall’s collection next spring.

The highest profile player to return to college hoops last year was Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart, and his draft status is likely about the same as it was last year, likely taken somewhere around pick number five. His Cowboys are 16-3, and should be poised to make a deep tournament run. Coming back for an additional season appears not to have helped his draft status, but doesn’t appear to have cost him any draft positions, either.

You can’t blame Vonleh if the pull of the NBA is simply too strong. Yes, the game still needs some work, but they’ll pay for that skill development at the next level. I doubt if this was the plan going in, but the number on the uniform for Vonleh could indicate the number of years he spends in Bloomington.

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