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Jakob Poeltl is learning fast, and the Raptors have noticed

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Thrust into bigger minutes, Jakob Poeltl is trying to make the most of it, while learning difficult things on the fly.

Detroit Pistons v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

The difficulties of being a rookie big man in the NBA are not limited to wrestling with opponents who are faster and stronger than you. True, that’s arguably the largest difficulty — consider all 280 pounds of the Denver Nuggets’ Jusuf Nurkic coming down the lane, for example — but there are other problems, intricacies that involve more than muscled body parts crashing into each other.

For Raptors rookie Jakob Poeltl, a still-slight seven footer, the expectations heading into his first season were low. This is not to say the big Austrian doesn’t have potential and talent — remember, Jakob was picked ninth overall in the draft — but he was supposed to play behind one or both of Jared Sullinger and Lucas Nogueira. Except now, a week into the season, both are hurt, and Poeltl finds himself thrust into longer and longer stretches of minutes, grappling with the likes of Nurkic and Tristan Thompson, and chasing smaller men around on the perimeter. He’s had to learn fast.

“With every game, you learn how to play a little better,” said Poeltl after last night’s win over the Nuggets. “You pick up little things here and there you missed in your first game and then in your third game you’re better prepared for it.” Poeltl was pushed into action for over 17 minutes in said game, his highest total in three professional contests, and though he didn’t make a bucket from the field (going 0-for-3), he had an impact. Poeltl chipped in five rebounds, two blocks, finished a +3, and generally acquitted himself well on both ends of the court. To wit:

On offense so far, Jakob’s found ways to be effective — crashing the glass, setting solid screens, and rolling to the net with a controlled stride. His touch around the basket, something praised before he entered the NBA, has been on keen display. In last night’s game there was the moment Poeltl corralled the ball with one hand while battling with Kenneth Faried. (The flip-in shot missed, but still.) In the game against Cleveland, there was the beautiful swooping modified alley-oop that saw Poeltl jump, catch the ball, spin in mid-air and loft it in for two points. The majority of Poeltl’s points have come on plays like this, opportunities when the ball has fallen into his hands close to the bucket. It’s been Poeltl’s intuitiveness around the basket that’s produced these chances and made them count for something.

Dwane Casey, like every coach in NBA history, doesn’t necessarily like playing his rookies a lot, but even he’s been quick with praise. “His feel for the game, he has a good rhythm,” said Casey. “Excellent hands, makes one mistake he doesn’t make it twice. Very intelligent player.” In watching Poeltl play, it’s obvious to see why the list of compliments come easily to Casey. For a coach who preaches defense first, he’s been forced to admit that Poeltl’s qualities — his quickness, his ability to move his feet and track both men in a pick-and-roll, his ability to get vertical at the rim — are a plus. Even when faced with the idea of putting the young big man in against the bruiser Nurkic, Casey was surprisingly open: “You gotta put your feet in the water at some point to learn how to swim.”

To hear Casey tell it with a wry smile on his face, and listen to Poeltl acknowledge nuances the NBA game has thrown at him, is to know the application of the Raptors’ game plan is far from easy. Despite this, Casey has also mentioned that Jakob is now ahead of Nogueira in the rotation, a revelation that felt unthinkable as recently as two weeks ago. When asked about the new rookies before training camp began, Kyle Lowry had literally nothing to say about them. Poeltl (along with Pascal Siakam) were unknown quantities then.

Of course, Lowry, one of the smartest players in the league, knows that the unspoken, physical elements of the game are only part of it. As Poeltl figures out the intricacies of pick-and-roll defense, of avoiding defensive three-second calls — “It’s not the case in college,” Jakob admits — he also has to determine how best to communicate with his teammates.

“The language, the terminology, is one of the hardest parts,” said Lowry. “We’ve got a bunch of guys that can help them and bring them up to speed and make sure they’re OK. Not putting to much pressure on them, making sure that they can understand: OK, they’re allowed to make this mistake, this is how we’re going to fix it.” And in a game, Lowry’s doing just that, standing on the sidelines, or directing from the top of the key. The Raptors star admits he hasn’t fielded any questions from Jakob yet, just told him straight up what to do.

But this highlights one last funny kind of problem specific to the life of a rookie big man. It’d be fair to assume — as I did — that Lowry would be constantly in Jakob’s ear. But on the court, as Poeltl pointed out, it’s supposed to be him giving directions to Lowry. “That’s another thing, I think, especially for a rookie big guy, you gotta learn how to communicate, the team lingo, how to communicate best with your guards in pick-and-roll situations.”

Imagine that, Poeltl giving directions to Kyle Lowry? Just one more difficult thing he’ll have to figure out.