Noah Vonleh wanted to express his appreciation.
So at last Thursday’s 2014 NBA draft, held at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the 18-year-old Haverhill native invited 40 of his biggest supporters.
“He went back to the beginning,” said Renell Kumeh, when asked about her son’s extensive guest list.
“He went and made his own invitation list, and so everyone who impacted his life — one way or the other — that he felt needed to be there [was invited.] We did have a big crowd, but it was because we needed to involve everyone who had been in this process . . . it was very exciting to see everyone there.”
In addition to his mother and two younger sisters — Samnell, a rising 6-foot-3 senior center at Whittier Tech, and Aaronette — Vonleh hosted his first basketball coach, Barry Spears Sr. of Georgetown, along with his friend and Spears’s grandson, Johnnie.
He invited his Amateur Athletic Union coach from the Mass Rivals, Reading’s Vin Pastore, who regularly put Vonleh through grueling, skill-building individual workouts. Then there was Haverhill High coach Mike Trovato, who encouraged Vonleh to transfer to New Hampton after his sophomore year so he could further his development against stronger competition.
Vonleh’s mentor, Scott Hazelton, a former McDonald’s All-American and NBA player, was also in Brooklyn, as were two of Vonleh’s former Rivals teammates: Haverhill’s Saul Phiri and Roxbury’s Jalen Adams.
Together they celebrated in the NBA Draft Green Room after Vonleh was selected ninth overall by the Charlotte Hornets.
“I was just proud and happy I was there to watch a kid reach his dream,” Trovato said.
“I was really happy for him,” echoed Phiri, a 6-foot-4, 205-pound rising junior guard at Worcester Academy, who played his freshman year under Trovato.
“It was, by far, my most exciting basketball time ever,” said Pastore, who also teaches math at Central Catholic High in Lawrence. “It was one of those points in life. You can pick out a few critical points in your life where you were overwhelmed with happiness, and that was one of them for me.”
The 6-foot-10, 247-pound Vonleh possesses jaw-dropping physical attributes. His arms stretch 7-foot-4 inches wide, and his hands measure nearly 12 inches, and “the goal has always been to elevate his basketball skills to where they match his God-given frame.”
Hours of practice earned him a scholarship to Indiana University and eventually a spot in the 2013 McDonald’s All-American game.
During his impressive, yet inconsistent, single season as a Hoosier, Vonleh averaged 11.3 points, 9 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks. His 19.4 total rebounding percentage was among the nation’s best, and helped earn him Big 10 Conference Freshman of the Year honors.
So when draft night arrived, Vonleh was at ease. No more tests, interviews, drills, or games remained for him to complete and further influence the outcome.
“Noah tried to look at whatever was going to happen that night was meant to be,” Pastore said. “Noah just really wanted to play in the NBA.”
After Boston selected Marcus Smart, a choice that disappointed local fans, including those in his entourage, Vonleh was taken three picks later.
“I was actually kind of upset,” Phiri said of the Celtics’ decision. “I thought they were going to get him at six, but it didn’t work out that way.”
And while the Celtics would have afforded Vonleh the chance to regularly play in front of family and friends, it also might have been a challenging and distraction-laden situation.
Charlotte might prove the better fit.
Beyond being selected by Michael Jordan, the Hornets’ owner, Vonleh will be mentored by assistant coach Patrick Ewing, a Hall of Fame center. Al Jefferson, who jumped to the NBA — and the Celtics — from high school in 2004 and became a first-time All-Star last season, along with ex-Hoosier Cody Zeller, will also help ease Vonleh’s transition.
The NBA rookie acknowledged as much during his introductory call with Charlotte news media.
“The Hornets are an up-and-coming organization in the NBA,” he said. “They’ve got young guys like Kemba Walker, Cody Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Al Jefferson also, and a few other young guys.”
With Charlotte coming off its first postseason berth in four years, Vonleh will not be rushed. He can use his strengths — rebounding, shot blocking, and face-the-basket perimeter offense — when he sees playing time, while continuing to hone his weaknesses — like footwork, offensive post moves, and consistency — during practices.
As for what he will immediately bring to the Hornets, Vonleh said: “I’ve got a great work ethic and I will play hard from day one and try to make my way into the rotation.”
It is this mindset — even hours after being drafted Vonleh was already talking with friends and family during an early-morning celebratory dinner at an Italian eatery outside Times Square about how he must improve — that could one day propel him to NBA stardom.