The talent is there. The basketball genes are evident. The will to win is obvious.
What makes Arizona Class of 2021 commit Aaronette Vonleh, sister of NBA player Noah Vonleh of the Denver Nuggets, stand out from others is her personality, according to Brooke Cates, her coach at West Linn (Ore.) High School.
Too often the character of a player — especially how the player relates to teammates — gets overlooked in the recruiting process, especially that of a 5-star recruit such as Vonleh, a 6-foot-3 fundamentally-sound post who can also play facing the basket.
“Aaronette’s really funny, but she’s quiet and pretty reserved until you get to know her,” said Cates, who coached the Lions to a 20-6 record and 6A Three Rivers League title last season. “She’s just a teddy bear and she is just so sweet with everybody. All of the girls on the team just love her.
“She is very witty. She is fun and funny to be around. She’s very much a team player. She’s just so incredible as a player, but she does not have that big ego at all. She would hide from reporters; she much rather would have somebody else be in the limelight.”
The limelight will be difficult to avoid for Vonleh now after committing to Arizona and coach Adia Barnes during the weekend.
Vonleh mentioned that she is prepared for the attention she will receive at Arizona after closely observing how popular the Wildcats have become, ranking second in the Pac-12 in attendance last season, drawing 5,944 fans a game.
“Well, I felt like I had developed a really good relationship with all the coaches and Adia, I had been able to follow their team and saw all the things they were accomplishing this year, all the things Adia was doing for them and just how far they’ve come from a couple years ago,” Vonleh mentioned when asked why she committed to Arizona. “There’s no denying that they’re only going to keep improving and going up from here. I just knew I wanted to be a part of something special like that.”
Barnes has often mentioned in the past that she recruits players who fit within the framework of the culture of the program, and that some highly-talented 5-star prospects might not fit that mold.
This is what Barnes said of the culture after Arizona beat ASU 59-53 in front of a regular-season record crowd of 10,160 at McKale Center on Jan. 24:
“We are doing things the right way. The culture has changed.”
“What shirt did we have on? We had ‘Culture.’ That means everything to me. It’s very important. And it’s everything.”
“You don’t win games without culture because we don’t have the talent to do that. We don’t have five McDonald’s All-Americans.”
“We value those little things, that chemistry, that culture, that hard work, getting better, improving the skill development … and then like now, as we are getting better, you recruit better.”
From what Cates describes of Vonleh after having coached her over the last three years, Vonleh fits Barnes’ culture.
“I would just say I’m a really open-minded and thoughtful person,” Vonleh stated. “I don’t hold people’s mistakes against them and I like to see things from multiple perspectives. I think in a team setting that’s important being able to communicate with your teammates and just keep the energy positive, which usually results in a strong team bond.”
Cates added with amazement, “She just turned 17 a couple of days ago. She’s still so young. You guys are going to love her over there because of the person she is. She’s obviously the athlete, but you’re getting a great person too, and that’s always good for a team.”
Barnes and her staff managed to recruit Vonleh out of the heart of Oregon, where the Oregon Ducks and Oregon State Beavers have established themselves as a couple of the premier women’s basketball programs over the last five years.
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Cates, a former Duck player herself, mentioned with a laugh, “I would have wanted her to go to Oregon. I love Coach (Kelly) Graves. But, you know, sometimes when it’s in your own backyard, you kind of want a new adventure, so I understand that too.”
Vonleh, rated the No. 38 Class of 2021 prospect in the nation by ESPN, was recruited by most of the top programs in the Pac-12. Oregon’s coaching staff attended a few of her games. Oregon State wanted her. She said picking a school outside of that area “wasn’t too difficult.”
“I always wanted to go out of state especially since my mom is planning on moving after I graduate from high school, so it was great that they were interested, but I had better relationships with other schools too,” Vonleh said.
Vonleh has established herself as a physical presence in Cates’ system at West Linn, mostly playing in the post.
She was a player of the year and first-team selection last season for West Linn playing in Oregon’s highest classification in the Three Rivers League. She averaged 17.7 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game last season. She also shot 64 percent from the field, and her high basketball IQ is evident with her ability to find cutting players and make the good pass while double-teamed.
She also is nimble on her feet and anticipates well on defense.
“I would just say I’m a really open-minded and thoughtful person. I don’t hold people’s mistakes against them and I like to see things from multiple perspectives. I think in a team setting that’s important being able to communicate with your teammates and just keep the energy positive, which usually results in a strong team bond.”
— Aaronette Vonleh
“In high school, we have her down low because there’s nobody else like her, but I think she can can play outside of the lane as well,” Cates said. “She’s evolving. She does have a nice outside shot. It’s just when you have a player like that I’d rather have her shoot from 2 feet versus 20 because of the percentages.
“It’s not that she can’t shoot outside because she can. She’s got a nice touch from outside; she just doesn’t get a lot of opportunities in my system right now.”
Vonleh is spending much of her time in the gym expanding her game to be more of a threat from the basket to 10 to 15 feet out.
“I’ve always liked playing under the basket and dominating down low, so I feel like that’s my biggest strength,” she said. “But I’ve also been working on expanding my game and being able to be successful from the perimeter as well.
“I hope that when I come to Arizona, I can build off that and be able to be an inside and outside player.”
With her dominant productivity at the highest level in Oregon, in a big city like Portland, at younger than 17 years old through last season, Vonleh is a talent with a high ceiling. As she matures and develops in Barnes’ system, her skill level and personality is bound to make her a fan favorite at McKale.
“You want good people, and boy, you’re getting a gem,” Cates said.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.