2018-2019 Off the Glass Breakout Players Series: Jakob Poeltl
Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star
With the 2018-2019 NBA season fast approaching, Off the Glass is making predictions on who the breakout players of each team will be. Today we look at Jakob Poeltl from the San Antonio Spurs.
When the Toronto Raptors decided to trade DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a protected 2019 first round pick to the San Antonio Spurs for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, everybody was shocked. Not only were the Raptors a surprise suitor for Leonard’s services, but few people could believe Raptors’ general manager Masai Ujiri double-crossed DeRozan, the team’s longtime franchise star who was supposed to be a Raptor for life. None of that really surprised me; the NBA is a business and a place where anything can happen. What really surprised me was the Raptors’ willingness to do anything possible to rent Leonard for a year, including giving away their most promising young player.
As a second-year talent, Poeltl was part of the best bench in the league last season. Those key reserves often had more success against good teams than some other starting lineups around the NBA.
Standing at seven feet tall, Poeltl was the inside presence that made those bench units so dangerous. We are not talking about a monster big man who dominated the game inside and out, but about a young man who came off the bench for the best regular season team in the Eastern Conference and still performed much better than many of his counterparts with as much NBA experience.
In 18.6 minutes per game, Poeltl averaged 6.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, half a steal, and 1.2 blocks on 65.9% shooting, the best field goal percentage mark in the NBA. His impact last season cannot be relegated to numbers, as Poeltl quickly started doing many of the small things that have set him apart from other young big men.
From setting screens to making the right defensive plays and crashing the offensive glass, everything Poeltl did appeared to have a complex reasoning behind. Only the most elite minds in basketball have the ability to make the right decisions in a split second.
Last year Poeltl mastered the art behind setting great screens, as former Raptors head coach Dwane Casey pointed out before last year’s playoffs. “I thought [in Poeltl’s rookie season] he was the victim of rookie-itis, getting called on moving screens. But he’s better at it this year.”
And in case you are wondering what went through Poeltl’s mind before setting a screen, he gave us a glimpse of it last season: “If it’s a guy like [DeRozan] I’m really just going up there to get him open. I don’t even worry about my own role. […] Other guys, like Fred [VanVleet] or Delon [Wright], I’m trying to set a good screen and give them an outlet with a roll and maybe suck the defense in with the roll, so they have a pass to the weak side. I try to see how the defense guards them, like the smalls, then I try to flip the screen so maybe I get a hit on them. Look at his feet, maybe, then try to get him off guard.”
Now Poeltl begins a new chapter in his career and is headed for a breakout season. He does a lot of stuff very well on both ends of the floor.
On defense, it is close to the rim where Poeltl is most dangerous. Last season he allowed 53.6% on field goals defended at the rim, good for 13th in the league. He was also second in blocks amongst players with less than 20 minutes per game and had a 5.2% block rating, ranked around the 96th percentile among players with at least 500 minutes played. He is tall enough and could become an even scarier inside presence on defense as he continues to develop and is given an increased role.
And while interior defense is his specialty, Poeltl can hold his own against stretch bigs on the perimeter as long as he is not matched up with unicorns. He also made appropriate, smart rotations when the situation presented itself.
Poeltl’s offensive numbers are not eye-popping, but it is everything he does besides scoring that makes him as effective. His 111 offensive rating last season suggests he can be useful in the right system, even when he does not often have the ball in his hands.
Poeltl did not only lead the league in field goal percentage, but also on true shooting percentage, effective field goal percentage, and two-point percentage. While these numbers should naturally decrease as he is given bigger responsibilities and thus starts scoring more in San Antonio, it would not be surprising to see Poeltl remain atop these categories throughout his career because of how smart he is.
Right now, it appears Poeltl is a step ahead of most every second and third-year big men in the NBA. One can only imagine how high his ceiling is as he enters his prime.
Poeltl is also a really good offensive rebounder. In fact, he was 15th in offensive rebound rating (12.4%), around the 96th percentile mark. He has a knack for positioning himself at the right spots and smartly boxing out his opponent. His wingspan is not something unusual – it was recorded as a 7-foot-1 before the 2016 draft – but he more than makes up for it with his savviness.
The obvious question is whether Poeltl can remain efficient as he looks to stretch his game to the three-point line – a must for today’s big men. He made one of his two three-point attempts against the Sacramento Kings last December. It will be really interesting to see his urgency in expanding his range.
If he wants to become lethal on the glass, Poeltl must add some weight. Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams, arguably the best offensive rebounder in the league, uses his body strength to battle for position and combines it with his intelligence to be an elite presence on the boards. Expecting Poeltl to be jacked and immovable from one season to another is unrealistic, but he can gradually work on his lower body strength to be a rock inside the paint.
Poeltl has the opportunity of a lifetime in San Antonio. He is starting his third season in the NBA, coming off a year he in which he played a prominent backup role and proved to be a valuable asset in the playoffs. His new team is arguably the most successful sports organization over the past two decades.
Keep in mind he will play under arguably the greatest basketball coach in history, Gregg Popovich. Pop has coached some of the best big men the games has seen. The good news for Poeltl does not stop there, as current Spurs starting big man Pau Gasol will be 39 years old by the start of next season. Popovich experimented with having Gasol come off the bench last season and it did not go bad, so starting Poeltl alongside LaMarcus Aldridge is not ludicrous.
Poeltl is the only actual center the Spurs have. Gasol, Aldridge, Dante Cunningham, and Davis Bertans are better suited to play power forward, so the young Austrian big man has pretty much a clear lane there.
Poeltl is not under any immediate pressure to increase his scoring when he becomes a starter; the Spurs will have a lot of scoring options with DeRozan, Aldridge and Rudy Gay on the floor. The former two can often score at will and Poeltl should benefit from ample open looks his teammates generate for him as he continue to perform the way he did in Toronto.
On defense, you can rest assured Popovich will make him better; that has been the case with pretty much any player that has suited up for the Spurs during Popovich’s tenure. Even when those players do not become outstanding individual defenders, Pop’s team defense is otherworldly and will unlock yet another level in Poeltl’s basketball IQ. As for offense, Poeltl should not struggle unless he is asked to take a completely new role. As long as he can continue working in a system in which he can set good screens and roll, look for offensive boards, and attack the rim, he will be good.
I am a firm believer the Spurs franchise presents Poeltl with the best opportunity to become a star and eventually develop into one of the league’s best big men.
All data and statistics obtained from NBA Stats and Basketball Reference.
You can follow Jorge on Twitter @CantuNBA