Google Noah Vonleh, the 6-foot-9-inch, 220-pound, five-star college basketball recruit from New Hampton School, and you will be inundated with stories summarizing his commitment to Indiana University, dissecting his on-court abilities, and analyzing his upside as a future NBA player.
What you will not find are narratives about Vonleh’s upbringing or who he is as a person. Unlike most of the seven players ranked before him in the high school class of 2013, Vonleh does not have a Wikipedia page or a Twitter account — though there are a few fake ones out there.
Instead, the soft-spoken, quietly confident, physically imposing 17-year-old from Haverhill has kept intensely private and stayed focused on basketball, homework, and friends.
“He’s a very typical adolescent in that he loves to play video games, he likes his music [and] he loves to play basketball,” said Pete Hutchins, in his sixth season as boys’ basketball coach at New Hampton.
“He’s got something he’s really passionate about [in basketball], which I think is great for kids at that age. He loves basketball and he just happens to be terrific at it.
“He’s friendly with everybody . . . he’s just a great kid.”
With a 7-foot-4 wingspan, hands that pick up a basketball as easily as anyone else might palm a light bulb, and athleticism that oozes the moment he soars for a rebound and dribbles the basketball, Vonleh is anything but an average player. His awesome physical traits — coupled with an unrelenting work ethic — are what put him on scouts’ radars as early as age 14.
That year, as a freshman, Vonleh was recognized on a list of top 30 high school sophomores in the country.
It was a pivotal moment for Vonleh. He said he always wanted to play in the NBA, but didn’t know it was realistic until he got into the rankings, and saw [he] was playing against some of the best players in the country.
By his sophomore season, Vonleh was averaging 18.4 points, 17 rebounds, seven assists, and five blocks at Haverhill High. He was also entering his fifth season with Mass Rivals, a highly competitive Amateur Athletic Union team coached by Vincent Pastore. It was through this association that Vonleh learned about New Hampton.
“I knew a lot of players over [here],” said Vonleh. “My AAU coach [brought] a lot of players up to New Hampton. My mom thought that it was a good fit for me because they have a good program and a lot of great players have come through here. It kind of was [a hard decision to leave home], but I knew it was better for me.”
So Vonleh followed in the footsteps of other Mass Rivals products like Marlborough’s Zach Auguste, now a freshman forward at the University of Notre Dame.
In his first year, Vonleh helped the Huskies advance past South Kent in the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council (NEPSAC) quarterfinals when he drained key free throws in the game’s closing minute to complete a second-half comeback.
Four days later, he displayed similar resolve at the national prep championship tournament by hitting a game winner over Tilton star Nerlens Noel, a shot-blocking 6-foot-10 center who is now a freshman at Kentucky.
“For me, [those plays] kind of validated maybe a killer instinct or someone who’s maybe capable of making big plays down the stretch,” said Hutchins.
But these represent only small steps when you have NBA aspirations.
“He’s a gym rat,” said Hutchins. “He’s a kid that wants to be great and he just works at it. I think a lot of kids play off their talent, and he’s an incredible talent. But behind that for Noah, there’s a lot of work that has taken place behind the scenes.”
“He holds [everyone] accountable and he also holds himself accountable,” said Cole McConnell, a 6-5 small forward at New Hampton. “He’s always pushing himself to make himself and his teammates better.”
Vonleh made additional strides with strong showings at last summer’s showcases and camps for top high school players.
This year, at New Hampton, he has been rebounding (13 per game) at a higher rate and scoring more (also 13 per game) through 16 contests. He realizes, however, his game must continue to evolve in order to become an impact college freshman and garner NBA lottery interest, perhaps as early as 2014.
After Vonleh officially signed his letter of intent last fall, Indiana University coach Tom Crean called him a dream recruit.
“To have somebody who is that humble, that grounded, and that talented at that young an age and have the opportunity to not only recruit him, but to also sign him, you can’t expect that,” Crean said.
Still, around New Hampton, the humorous, caring, reserved, and kind Vonleh is just Noah. Even after being offered scholarships by a number of top programs, including Kansas and North Carolina, and receiving numerous texts and e-mails from coaches telling him how much he was wanted, Vonleh remains grounded.
“On the first away trip when we stayed in a hotel, we [became] roommates,” said McConnell, who will walk on at Michigan next year. “I got to know him then. I didn’t ask for a pizza and he ordered a pizza for himself. It smelled really good so he was like, ‘Take three pieces.’ ”
With a mother, Renell, who emigrated from Western Africa in the mid-’90s, working two jobs to support him and his two younger sisters, Vonleh understands what it means to work hard and stay selfless. His mother has been involved in every step he has made on and off the basketball court. She wants the best for her son, and in turn ensures those surrounding Noah want the best for him.
And New Hampton has been the best for Vonleh.
It has shielded him from the Boston media. It has allowed him to remain a teenager just a little bit longer before the intense expectations of college basketball and regular media sessions commence.
These past two years, Vonleh has quietly been preparing for what could be a warp speed, 17-month journey to the NBA draft. From an economics class in which he is learning how much money it will take to maintain a certain standard of living, to honing his writing skills in English class, to increasing his comfort level with media interviews, Vonleh throws himself into every situation with humility.
When asked about his adjustment to New Hampton, Vonleh grinned before responding: “When I was at Haverhill, I was doing my laundry. My mom probably did it until I was 11 or 12 and then I started doing it.”
And just as he was prepared for boarding school, Vonleh is ready for the heightened competition of big-time college basketball and its off-court challenges. Even when the time comes for his own Wikipedia page and Twitter handle.Paul Lazdowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.