Nebraska basketball fans are no strangers to seeing future high NBA draft picks roll through town in visiting jerseys.
Just since 2005, a partial list of first-rounders who played in Lincoln is stunning:
Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, Blake Griffin, LeMarcus Aldridge, James Harden, Markieff and Marcus Morris, Jared Sullinger, Victor Oladipo, Cody Zeller, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.
Now, make way Thursday night at Pinnacle Bank Arena for 6-foot-10, 240-pound Noah Vonleh of Indiana.
The 18-year-old true freshman is nbadraft.net’s choice to go No. 6 overall in June. ESPN insider Chad Ford likes him at No. 8.
“Vonleh is brimming with talent,” Ford wrote. “He can do a little of everything. After beginning the season primarily as a rebounder and defensive presence, he’s started showing more dimension to his offensive game, including a nice-looking 3-point shot.”
Vonleh’s size and mobility are imposing enough.
Factor in his 7-foot-4 wingspan and 8-foot-10 reach, and it’s no wonder he leads the Big Ten in rebounding at 9.6 a game. He’s also 22nd in scoring (12.0), seventh in shooting (53.6 percent) and 10th in blocked shots (1.3).
Those are reminiscent of Wayman Tisdale stats, so it makes sense for Vonleh to be one of nine semifinalists for the Tisdale Award, which goes to the nation’s top freshman.
He already has been voted Big Ten freshman of the week six times, and leads the league in double-doubles with eight.
Vonleh arrived at Indiana with the requisite hype of a blue≠blood school recruit — consensus national Top 10 prospect and a McDonald’s All-American.
But he has needed to be as good as advertised because the Hoosiers (13-7, 3-4) lost four 1,000-point scorers from last year’s roster, including two of the top four picks in the draft.
“He’s improving rapidly,” Indiana coach Tom Crean told me Monday. “His learning curve is high. He’s gaining more and more confidence because he is understanding things better.”
One key point of knowledge is how to affect a game doing things other than scoring.
On Sunday, Illinois sent three and four defenders at Vonleh when he was even near the ball, holding him to four points. But the Illini lost 56-46 in part because Vonleh grabbed 14 rebounds and had two steals and a block.
“I hope he just continues to develop,” Crean said, “because he’s having fun and we’re having fun coaching him.”
Indiana’s NCAA tournament hopes likely rest with Vonleh, but Crean hasn’t seen any signs of the young star feeling the pressure.
Vonleh and fellow freshman Stanford Robinson arrived last summer, took up figurative residence in the gym and rarely leave, following the lead of recent star grinders such as Oladipo, Will Sheehey and Jordan Hulls.
“It was like they could never get enough of the game,” Crean said. “Noah’s like that. Noah loves the game and loves getting better and is very hungry to learn.
“He’s got a work ethic that there are some on the team who are matching it. But I wouldn’t say we have anybody who is above and beyond it.”