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Vonleh Reaching NBA After Refusing to Leave Gym

Noah Vonleh has been a gym rat since for his whole life. Now, that hard work will make him a lottery pick in the 2014 NBA Draft.

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There were never enough hours in the day, not when the athletic club closed around nine o’clock and he could have stayed on the court all night. Not when every minute he wasn’t practicing was 60 seconds that passed without improving.

“In any given day, you either get better or worse. You never stay the same,” his AAU coach told him.

Noah Vonleh didn’t just believe that mantra, he lived it.

Vin Pastore met Vonleh when he was in the seventh grade, a tall teenager with length and noticeably large hands from Haverhill in northern Massachusetts. Pastore coached the Mass Rivals, an AAU team that Vonleh would join. He had seen plenty of height and athleticism over the years; Vonleh had to possess more than just physical attributes to stand out from the rest.

It didn’t take long for Pastore to realize Vonleh was different. He didn’t work out to play, he worked out to get better. With a long-term goal in mind, Vonleh was fiercely determined to put in the work make it to the NBA.

“Some people dream about it when they go to bed,” Pastore told Basketball Insiders. “Noah had an advanced type of dreaming. He would dream about it when he was awake.”

They began a routine when Vonleh was a freshman in high school and followed it for the next two years. Vonleh finished school around 2:15 in the afternoon, Pastore picked him up around 2:30 and drove him to the Rockingham Athletic Club a few minutes away over the New Hampshire border. Vonleh completed his homework in the lounge area. Pastore, a teacher, did his after school work as well.

After they were finished, Vonleh began practicing, usually by four. Once he hit the court, there was no telling him to stop. There was a first wave of kids who Vonleh would work out with. When they went home for dinner, he ate at the snack bar and waited for the next group to arrive after supper. Vonleh returned again on the weekends.

“He couldn’t get enough of the gym,” said Pastore. “He was literally a kid who would give up anything to be in the gym.”

Vonleh was a skills player. In spite of his soaring height (he now measures 6’9, 247 pounds), he wanted to work on his guard game as a power forward. Dribbling, ball handling, he focused on the details.

He let his game do the talking, as he was reserved by nature. He followed in his mother’s footsteps of being a hard worker. For as long as Pastore knew her, she held two jobs to support Vonleh and his two sisters. Vonleh didn’t have the most expensive of things, but he never went without. Work diligently to succeed, he saw at home, and he applied that same focus to basketball.

There was the time his mother organized a family trip to Disney World and Vonleh insisted on being dropped off at a gym instead to practice. After all, taking days off for vacation meant losing opportunities to improve. There were also nights when Vonleh felt he had to get to the facility after insisting he played poorly even though, as Pastore pointed out, it was still a good performance by many people’s standards. Just as his mother found him a gym in Orlando, Pastore would find him a court near his home. His simple request came from a good place; he just wanted to be better.

“The thing about Noah is, he never asks for anything,” said Pastore. “So it’s hard to say no because all he ever asks for is, ‘Can you take me to the gym?’ He didn’t care if he had the fanciest phone or those Beats on his head. He just needed you to take him to the gym. And if the gym was closed, he wanted to know if we could get in somewhere.”

Word of Vonleh’s potential had made its way to the prep schools. Peter Hutchins, the head coach at New Hampton School, learned of Vonleh when he was in middle school. There wasn’t a lot of hype at first, but his reputation as a gym rat began to spread.

Like Pastore, Hutchins immediately noticed Vonleh’s physique. And like Pastore, he was struck by his work ethic when he enrolled following his sophomore year at Haverhill High School.

“It was certainly conveyed regularly that he had a certain intangible, that he had a willingness to work,” said Hutchins. “[He was] someone who after school was at the gym. I think at that age if you find young people that are that driven and don’t have any distractions in their lives, ultimately I think that’ll probably yield some pretty good results, which has certainly been the case for him.”

School breaks and summers were spent focusing on basketball. He wanted to be a McDonald’s All-American and ranked nationally. Pastore told Vonleh early on there were other players out there who possessed the same level of talent, so it was up to him to outwork them. He attended the LeBron James Skills Academy and Amar’e Stoudemire Skills Academy, surrounding himself with high-caliber players to keep pushing.

After two years at New Hampton, Vonleh was recruited by Indiana University, where he played one season before declaring for the 2014 NBA Draft at only 18 years old. He is a projected lottery pick, impressing teams with his versatility and reputable work ethic. Even as he received positive feedback during workouts, he still focused on getting to the gym the next day to continue working. The routine from high school has been altered, but the end result is the same. There is still just one place he’d rather be.

“Basketball was for him,” said Pastore. “It was beautiful because every young guy grows up and their interests seem to change and he kept that — going to the gym was the most important thing.”

Jessica Camerato is a bilingual reporter who has been covering the NBA since 2006. She has also covered MLB, NHL and MLS. A graduate of Quinnipiac University, Jessica is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association and the Association for Women in Sports Media.

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