Nobody on the Raptors has been as difficult for fans to project as second year centre Jakob Poeltl. Although he did everything well as a rookie, there wasn’t an obvious translatable weapon in his arsenal aside from his “basketball IQ,” which is often regarded as a player’s ability to learn.
Heading into his second year, Poeltl spent the summer training with Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, cementing an already great chemistry between the three players. Poeltl, along with Siakam and VanVleet, played for the Raptors in the Summer League; he played four games and averaged 27 minutes per game, 13.5 points and nine rebounds with a .706 shooting percentage from the field, a sizable increase in production from the previous year.
It appeared confidence was what Poeltl gained the most coming into his sophomore year, and it showed in his breakout game against none other than the defending champion Golden State Warriors, when he grabbed 11 offensive rebounds (14 total) and scored 12 points in just 26 minutes.
Since the beginning of the year, fans have been excited to try and project the type of player Poeltl will be. He’s shown flashes of offensive brilliance and has been the defensive anchor in Raptors’ wins. If his IQ is indeed his best weapon, his future couldn’t get much brighter than it is.
One might not consider this to be the case, but Poeltl has much more potential on the offensive end than on defense. That’s not to say his defensive potential is low — it’s not. But, Poeltl does nearly everything right on the offensive end, whether it’s setting a screen, grabbing an offensive rebound or scoring in the low post, and at his age it’s an incredible sign of things to come.
His first strength has roots in geometry. However unlike school, it’s not something that can be easily taught on the basketball court. It seems to be an intuitive, natural understanding of angles and, to put it simply, how the ball bounces on the floor. Yes, it’s a thing, and it helps him in more ways than one.
By understanding these angles better than most, Poeltl can maximize the chance of a made basket by utilizing the backboard with every shot, while decreasing the chances of a blocked shot. It may seem like the simplest part of basketball — the layup — but it’s one of the hardest to perfect, which is what Poeltl is on his way to accomplishing.
Another natural ability that helps him get his shots off is his footwork, which is already better than most bigs in the league. He has a variety of up and under moves at his disposal and he uses them to score in lieu of bullying defenders with brute strength — something he’ll have to work on in order to stay productive as his career progresses.
Finally, when you combine his footwork and his intuitive approach to basketball geometry (I promise, it’s a thing), you naturally get a solid rebounder — especially on the offensive end. Being able to instinctively calculate where a ball will travel after it bounces off the rim is invaluable, and Poeltl’s ability to get to the ball quicker than most just increases his chances of grabbing that rebound.
Here, you see his soft touch, footwork and instinct come together in a perfect summation of his game:
Where Poeltl Can Improve
Elden Campbell — known for his unique offensive game — was one of the more talented low-post scorers of the last 30 years. His ability to make a difficult shot gave him an advantage in the post that few defenders could match. Poeltl, too, has flashed an ability to make difficult shots regardless of his cover, thanks to the discussion above.
The two couldn’t be more different, however. Campbell was a tank for the Charlotte Hornets, despite coming into the league as a scrawny 215-pound centre. He morphed into a bruising big that could finish any shot around the hoop, without sacrificing his soft touch in the post. In order to round into form, Poeltl needs to strengthen his upper body. The fact that he’s already a smooth finisher will only help him become a more complete low-post scorer after he puts on weight and is able to push defenders out of position — much like Campbell did as he became a bigger player.
This will also help him in an area in which he’s currently behind the curve: defensive rebounding. As mentioned above, Poeltl can quickly get into position in order to grab offensive rebounds thanks to superior position. But, against stronger post players who already have position on offense, he often gets pushed around when the going gets rough.
Because of this, Poeltl grabs almost as many offensive rebounds as he does defensive — a clear trouble area in his game.
As it stands, without the ability to move with the ball, Poeltl is ultra-reliant on his guards to feed him in the post, which limits how effective he can be on offense. Without the ability to dribble, Poeltl is stuck where ever he receives the ball, and this becomes problematic if that happens to be at the top of the key, or somewhere along the perimeter.
It also handicaps him in the pick and roll, because it decreases the available window which a guard can pass him the ball after a screen. Instead of being able to toss it to him when he’s open, the guard has to first make sure he’s either one dribble, or two steps from the basket. On the other hand, by being able to dribble effectively, Poeltl can receive the ball past the three-point line and then drive to the hoop or make a pass: two-thirds of what is considered by basketball minds to be a “triple-threat.”
Pau Gasol was known for being one of the best front court ball handlers in the league. Not many bigs had the ability to face up and take a defender off the dribble like Gasol, and the ones who did were elite scorers — which Gasol definitely was. Should Poeltl develop even an average ability to face up and drive to the basket, it’d be a crucial and almost necessary step in his development as a scorer.
Gasol’s ability to drive the ball gave him a huge advantage against bigger, slow defenders:
Like Gasol, Poeltl excels at setting screens and rolling hard to the hoop. Adding that dribbling ability will extend his range further out and allow him to become a threat as a ball-handler instead of just creating off-ball motion when rolling to the basket. This would create even more space for his teammates to shoot, a lot like Pascal Siakam currently does.
With his soft touch, basketball IQ, and an intuitive understanding of the intricacies of basketball physics (definitely, absolutely, 100% a real thing), Poeltl’s offensive game would instantly advance with an ability to face the defender and drive to the basket, and he has the foot speed to excel at it.
Offensive comparisons to Pau Gasol might be heady, but they are not a stretch if everything goes the right way. Of course, when I say everything, I mean everything and then a little more. Poeltl simply cannot or will not dribble the ball right now, which is something Gasol was able to do brilliantly, even as a rookie. But, given the dedication to his craft, Poeltl has a great chance to become an above average low-post option on offense.
There’s nobody on the Raptors’ roster that has as unique a set of natural abilities as Poeltl. He’s a hard worker who loves the fundamentals, so adding something as basic as dribbling should pose a minimal challenge. When that day comes, not only will Raptor fans know — the entire league should know. Are you starting to get the picture?