By Artau Pascual

Johann Gruenloh established himself as one of the best European bigs in the upcoming generations last season. The 6’11 German Big had a strong showing in the 2022/23 ANGT and was a key part of the German National Team that earned a well-deserved Bronze medal in the U18 European Championship. 

The start of the 2023-24 season has been even better for Gruenloh. He has quickly turned into Rasta Vechta’s starting Center. It hasn’t taken a long time for him to find ways to impact the game and help his team -their only loss of the season has been against BBL powerhouse ALBA Berlin-. Gruenloh is a valuable player for Rasta because he’s able to provide easy things at a highly reliable level no matter the circumstances. 

Gruenloh on the offensive end: a play-finishing role

The very first thing a young player needs to do to obtain credit and stay on the court when he’s experiencing his first games in a league like BBL is demonstrating the ability to contribute keeping things easy. That has been a simple process for Gruenloh during these first weeks. We know because of what he’s shown in recent years he has quick hands and is smart enough to make playmaking reads from the elbows and the post, but he has embraced perfectly the main assignment: producing in the margins of the game. Gruenloh, by grabbing offensive boards relentlessly thanks to a mix of gifts such as size, nose for the ball and well-developed fundamentals to fight for the position in the paint or exploit his straight-line speed, has turned into a second-chance machine that not only provides easy putbacks but also guarantees some extra possessions. 

On the other hand, he has turned into a remarkably effective pick&roll player. The first thing we must notice is that he has done major improvements in his hip fluidity at flipping for receiving the pass and, also, he isn’t afraid of catching bodies and going for dunks every time he can. Gruenloh’s ceiling as a screener looks promising: he does a legit use of his size to set strong screens, and he’s able to build advantages for the handler or for himself to roll to the rim. During the start of the 2023/24 season we’ve seen him comfortably setting screens at different heights, changing the angles and creating windows for his mates. Gruenloh is mainly used in a play-finishing role, so he’s not been able to add to his game the processing and passing ability to feed shooters in short roll schemes, but these playmaking chops are in his repertoire. He’ll be able to include them if he keeps climbing in his team’s hierarchy scale. Gruenloh is a quick decision-maker with good spatial awareness. He has the tools to hit shooters and rollers in a short time-span after getting the ball, which is a tremendous added-value for a big when it comes to finding ways to fuel the offense. It’s also worth mentioning another underrated skill he has: the sealing ability. Grunloh knows how to create lanes for drivers, and it will surely be a useful tool for Vechta’s offensive disposition for the whole season.

In the only game he played with in Pro A, we saw Gruenloh thriving in a major role on the offensive end. He finished the game with 15 points and 4 assists (also 15 rebounds and 7 blocks). The team ran the offense through him. He showed all those things he has in his bag and will eventually be able to translate such as post-up offense, as well as the chemistry with another gem of the German basketball upcoming generations like 2006-born G Jack Kayil. Gruenloh showed a nice level of accuracy at exploiting the attention he drew from the opponents and sent well-timed passes against the double teams he faced that turned into easy situations for his teammates. In terms of scoring in the post, it’s a matter of time he translates this skill to the higher levels. As we saw in the U18 European Championship, he’s already a productive player when he can duck in and get his position against smaller bigs or punish the switch. He’s already been able to get some good looks doing so during these first games. What will mark his ceiling as a scorer in this area will be his progress in areas such as strength to back his opponents, but the main focus will be touch and footwork. 

Grunloh’s contribution on defense

If there’s a reason why Gruenloh was known last season, that’s shot-blocking. He was brilliant in this area in all the tournaments he played in because of his timing, length and ability to cover huge amounts of ground. That’s more difficult to do against grown-men competition. However, it hasn't been a major issue for Gruenloh’s, who has already left flashes of rim-protecting ability by being at the right place at the right time and communicating at a high level. A good example of his impact in this area is the first stretch of the game against ALBA Berlin, in which Gruenloh’s impact helped Vechta to build an early advantage.

As a pick&roll defender, at the start of the season Gruenloh is playing in a different scheme than in the Summer. While with the German U18 NT the go-to-strategy was heavily linked to showing and recovering -he was successful in it-, with Vechta he’s dealing with quite a lot of isolation defense. He needs to work on his lateral quickness and stance, but he’s already forcing high-level guards to pound the rock for many seconds and rely on stepbacks or sidesteps to score over him. His size is a significant benefit in these situations.

The area where he’s struggling the most currently is at facing opponents in the low post. He still needs to gain core strength to handle the highest levels of physicality, and he has some ways to go when it comes to managing the matchup against forwards and bigs with space-creation skills in that area. Besides this, his impact is net positive. He doesn’t have problems following the scheme, can act as the anchor, provides box-out fundamentals to facilitate the control of the defensive board for his team, contests shots and closes out in rotations.

It’s still early in the season, but Gruenloh has quickly turned into a key player for a team that has been performing above the expectations against really good teams. And there’s a clear connection between both facts.