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Player Review: Jakob Poeltl still isn’t sexy, but he might be pretty good

Jakob Poeltl’s rookie season was exciting in a totally boring kind of way.

NBA: Miami Heat at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

There existed a scenario in which the player the Raptors drafted with the ninth pick in the 2017 draft — the pick acquired in the Andrea Bargnani trade — would result in a net loss for the Raptors. Sure, the odds were slim that the incoming rookie would prove to be so unbelievably bad at basketball as to make Raptors fans long for the days of everyone’s least-favourite pasta shill, but for every DeMar DeRozan or Gordon Hayward taken with the ninth pick, there’s a Mike Sweetney or Trey Burke.

Thankfully for all those who wish to forever despise Bargnani and the era he represented, it seems as though the Raptors hit on the pick gifted to them by the Knicks back in the good old days when James Dolan wasn’t scared shitless by Masai Ujiri.

Jakob Poeltl wasn’t the most eye-popping selection for the Raptors at nine last June. He didn’t possess the shooting and ball skills that might portend a big man’s future stardom. Shot-swatting, terrorizing rim protection was never part of his repertoire in college. He was a high-floor, safe selection that seemed to frustrate fans hoping for a prospect with star potential burgeoning within.

Flash forward a year, and the criticisms of the Poeltl selection — if you want to make them — remain valid. His rookie season was solid, but not flashy; useful, but not game-changing. While the next decade of the NBA might be dominated by Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, Poeltl projects to end up a tier or three below the league’s new wave of multi-talented centres.

Despite not having the same tool kit as the NBA’s most exciting up-and-coming bigs, Poeltl proved in his rookie season that he certainly has a place in the NBA. Here’s a look at where he shone and struggled in 2016-17.

The Good

Poeltl entered the league as a direct inverse to the types of prospects that teams love to take chances on. Rather than boasting raw tools and ductile athleticism, Poeltl’s calling card was boring old fundamentals. One season into his career, it’s clear that Poeltl’s best asset isn’t a single physical trait or special skill — it’s his brain.

Rookies are almost universally inept at defense. Picking up the nuances of defending in the NBA takes time, repetition, and more time — just ask Toronto’s other rookie, Pascal Siakam. But Poeltl was different than most first year players at the unheralded end of the floor. This is where Poeltl’s cerebral strength was most beneficial.

Toronto’s other centres, Jonas Valanciunas and Lucas Nogueira, are prone to gaffes on the defensive end, particularly when it comes to pick-and-roll defense. Navigating the balancing act of showing out to the perimeter and flashing back to tag a rolling big man doesn’t come easily to them. In the case of Valanciunas, a low-IQ combined with a hard-to-move body leads to constant breakdowns against the league’s most prominent base set.

Poeltl already has a grasp of the beats and timing of defending in the half court, and he’s helped by being fleeter of foot than any of the Raptors’ other centres. With that marriage of intelligence and speed, Poeltl managed to pull off a rare feat as a rookie. He was a plus on defense.

Over 54 games and 600+ minutes, the Raptors posted a terrific 101.5 defensive rating with Poeltl on the court — a mark that got four points worse per 100 possessions when he sat. As perhaps the most advanced defender in the 2016 rookie class, Poeltl finished the year first in Win Shares per 48 minutes among rookies with at least 500 minutes of action at 0.125, per Basketball Reference.

Poeltl’s basketball IQ came in handy on the offensive end as well, especially when it came to crashing the offensive glass. It was predictable any time Poeltl entered a game — at some point he was going to perfectly anticipate the ball’s ricochet off the rim and collect a Raptors miss. It took no time at all for him to establish himself as one of the league’s top offensive rebounders. At season’s end, Poeltl sat 13th among players who appeared in at least half their team’s games in offensive rebounding percentage at 13.7 percent, just below the likes of Andre Drummond, Enes Kanter, Dwight Howard and Rudy Gobert. It was Siakam who garnered early comparisons to the Cavs’ Tristan Thompson upon his entry into the league, but Poeltl — a smart defender with low block numbers and a knack for collecting offensive boards — appears to be even more Thompson-like after his first season in the league.

If being Thompson-adjacent is Poeltl’s peak, then it was a tremendous pick by the Raptors. There were however, odd glimpses of an even more offensively dynamic Poeltl sprinkled throughout his rookie campaign.

DeMar DeRozan, Norman Powell and, before he got traded, Terrence Ross are the most common faces you’ll see on any 2016-17 Raptors dunk reel. But Poeltl might hold the belt as the team’s lowest-key nasty dunker. Tim Hardaway Jr. can attest.

In addition to his surprising hops, Poeltl flashed the kind of quick-fire passing on the roll that Raptors fans have been hoping to see out of Valanciunas for years.

Jams and laser passes were anything but regular occurrences for Poeltl this season; they were rare swells in a sea of understated but steady play. If he can find a way to make those types of action-packed plays more consistent features of his game, maybe there is a previously unforeseen level of sexiness that Poeltl is capable of unlocking.

The Bad

While he picked up defense like a wily veteran, Poeltl was a quintessential rookie in many other respects.

Most notable was the extremely tight whistle under which he operated all season long. Oftentimes he was called into action when Valanciunas picked up early fouls, only to quickly wind up in foul trouble of his own. No regular player in the NBA picked up more fouls per 36 minutes than Poeltl’s comical 6.5. As his defensive reputation grows, that number will surely decline. His wild, sometimes clumsy movements however, will have been to reined in some if he hopes to avoid being someone who is perpetually at the risk of fouling out.

Getting stronger in the off-season should help Poeltl in a handful of ways. On defense, for example, some added strength should help him maintain defensive position more easily, thus leading to a lower number of the flailing fouls he tends to pick up.

His offensive game could be boosted by some extra weight room trips, too. While he got up for some impressive dunks this season, Poeltl resorted to dainty lay-up tries in traffic far too routinely, rendering a bunch of his offensive rebounds useless. He’s shown he can rattle rims — going forward he needs to do it with confidence and regularity if he’s going to make the most of his limited range.

Therein lies the most obvious limiting factor on Poeltl’s game. His game is almost entirely paint-bound.

Poeltl has never really shown signs that he’s even interested in adding a stretchy element to his game. He didn’t take a single three during his two seasons at Utah. And as a low-usage garbage man for the Raptors this season, he was never asked to explore the land outside the key.

His 54.4 percent rate from the line isn’t hack-worthy, but it is a bad reflection on his form that suggest he might never have a refined enough jump shot to become a pick-and-pop option down the line. If his offense lacks diversity forever, he could become the type of player teams funnel the action towards in playoff scenarios. Perhaps he’ll thrive as a roller and a passer, but if the perimeter isn’t dotted with shooters, his game may resemble something of a relic.

These are the flaws in his game that made him an unexciting selection with the ninth pick, and his upside may forever be capped as a result. At just 21, the Raptors have time to mold and develop him. But even if Poeltl can’t be transformed into a more modernized big man, the franchise can find solace in the fact that his base level skills will at least guarantee a sturdy, fundamentally sound floor.

The Grade: B+

Poeltl didn’t get a consistent role with the Raptors this year, but his play was effective enough to allow him to leap frog Nogueira in the rotation by season’s end. It’s damned hard to find a rookie capable of making a positive impact when thrown into the fire. Defensive acumen and wits helped Poeltl do just that.

Poeltl’s first impression provides the Raptors with a valuable asset heading into a summer of salary juggling and free agency uncertainty: insurance.

He’s young, cheap and competent with plenty of room to grow. If Serge Ibaka leaves for a new team or Jonas Valanciunas is offloaded as part of a cap crunch, the Raptors can rest easy knowing Poeltl is lurking at the back of the depth chart. Maybe he’s not quite ready for starter duty, but the tools are there — especially at the defensive end — for Poeltl to one day grow into the kind of anchor Raptors fans once hoped Valanciunas might be.