Noah Vonleh never got the chance to play on Christmas Day in his first four NBA seasons, and it wasn’t only the schedule-makers who were responsible for that. Last season, he had the day off with the Portland Trail Blazers, but he played a total of 2 minutes and 34 seconds in a 10-day span overlapping Christmas anyway.
On Christmas Day in 2018, he will start in front of a national audience when the Knicks take on the Milwaukee Bucks at Madison Square Garden. Vonleh’s assignment? He will match up with Giannis Antetokounmpo, a superstar looking for revenge — even though he presumably has no problem with Vonleh.
On any day, Antetokounmpo is a challenge, currently in the top 10 in the NBA in scoring and rebounding, a part of any conversation about the most valuable player in the league this season. Now he arrives with the promise of payback he delivered on Dec. 1 when the Knicks beat the Bucks in triple overtime.
In that game, Mario Hezonja completed a fast-break dunk in the opening minutes, and when Antetokounmpo fell to the ground trying to block it, Hezonja stepped over him and raised his arms in an attempt to get the fans out of their seats.
Antetokounmpo was not amused. He said he would punch Hezonja in the groin if it happened again.
Hezonja isn’t starting anymore and did not even play in the Knicks' last game. The task of facing up to Antetokounmpo falls to Vonleh.
“Well, he’s a freak. I mean, he’s 6-10,” Vonleh said, although he pointed out that Antetokounmpo might be 7 feet, a rare player who is taller than his listed height. “He’s long, he’s got a great physique. He can do a lot of things out there on the floor. He’s a tough cover.''
Antetokounmpo, 24, is averaging 26.2 points and 12.8 rebounds per game. He's shooting 58.3 overall from the field and 65.4 percent from inside the three-point arc (although at 9-for-69, he is at only 13.0 percent from three-point range).
“The challenge defending against him is he’s 6-10 and he can do a little bit of everything,'' Vonleh said. "He can handle the ball, he can knock down the mid-range, he’ll shoot the three. It’s a challenge. He has the ball in his hands every possession, so you’re not going to stop a guy like that. You can only try to contain him or make it difficult for him. He’s going to score, he’s going to get his [numbers], so you have to try to make it tough. That’s really the only thing you can do.”
The Knicks (9-25) are tied with the Bulls for the third-worst record in the NBA and are only one game better than the Cavaliers and Suns, who are tied for the worst record. They have lost four straight games and 11 of 13. Playing on this particular day, however, is something special.
“This is my first Christmas Day game,” Vonleh said. “In this league, I feel like players are watching . . . So it’s great. Everybody’s going to be with their families. Everyone is going to have the game on. They’re going to be with their families spending time together, opening gifts, and they’re going to be watching those four or five games. We’re the first game, so we can tip off their Christmas Day, early game, 12 o’clock, so I’m looking forward to playing in that.”
While Vonleh will get to show off his progress this season, he’s not the only one looking forward to the chance to showcase his skills.
“I think it’s a great opportunity,” rookie Kevin Knox said. “Everyone’s going to be watching. We’ve got the first game. All the players that are not playing, that’s a great opportunity for them to be able to watch us and see us guys play, because we don’t really play on TV that much. So we got [an ESPN] game so all those players that are at home with their families, opening up presents, they’ll be able to watch basketball. I know all athletes, they’re gonna watch Christmas games. It’s going to be a great opportunity. New York’s going to be popping, the Garden’s going to be crazy. It’ll be a great experience for me.”