Answering questions about the team’s upcoming opponent, the New York Knicks, Jakob Poeltl was visibly winded.
“I’m a little out of breath right now,” he said with an apologetic smile.
His answers touched on the approach required against a team they hadn’t seen since that infamous day in November — that game memorable for all the wrong reasons — a disappointing loss that saw the Raptors outscored by 31 points in what was likely the worst quarter of team basketball they’ve played this season.
A reporter replied cheekily: “From wiping your face?”
“[No], from running up here... you didn’t see the sprint. It was pretty fast”.
All jokes aside, his response was fitting in a way. Much of what Poeltl does on, and now off the court, goes unnoticed.
Every other member of the Raptors Bench Mob to a man features more flash and spice in their respective games when compared to their Austrian teammate — even Fred VanVleet who I have taken to calling ‘Mr. Fundamental’ now that Tim Duncan has left the league.
Poeltl, along with several other members of the league’s most insanely fun-to-watch bench, has flown under the radar since entering the league, this being his first full NBA season of hopefully many. But this year has also brought a new set of challenges not only for the Raptors’ young contingent, broadly speaking, but also for Poeltl specifically.
The lone lottery pick in the bunch, Poeltl was viewed as a team favourite, despite lacking a huge wingspan and the at-the-rim athleticism of someone like Lucas Nogueira, to snag one of the rotational spots up for grabs in training camp, behind starters Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas. By now we know how it’s all shaken out, with Poeltl and buddy Pascal Siakam having established themselves as real rising stars.
With per game averages of 6.8 points and 4.8 rebounds, it would appear as though I’m making much ado about nothing. Those numbers seem to suggest Poeltl’s nothing more than a free ticket in a lottery sense. Teams aren’t exactly seeking out a counter-force to Poeltl Power in their film sessions.
But the former Utes’ impact goes far beyond a traditional stat line. Unlike Siakam’s loud game, there’s almost a boring simplicity to Poeltl’s play, resulting in a lot of his contributions getting overlooked with regularity.
For example, Poeltl is not the ball handler Siakam is. He won’t lead a fast break like Pascal or execute a slick dribble crossover from the elbow on his way to a thunder dunk. But he will set hard, effective screens, and work with excellent precision in screen-and-roll actions, able to catch and finish in traffic. (Though he’s still working to get the respect of the officials; it’s a getting to know you process that takes time.)
Highly mobile on both sides, Poeltl is able to operate from anywhere on the move. He’s a capable and underrated passer for a big man. He’s also great in hand-off scenarios — his roll IQ is highlighted a ton in those type of sets.
On the other end, Jak mostly is able to stay on the hip of driving guards, and does a quality job contesting shots at the rim. His hesitance is still noticeable at times — though one might attribute that to an understanding of his strong magnetic connection towards ticky-tack fouls. Nevertheless, Poeltl’s movements in the screen game are instinctual and generally speaking, executed without hesitation.
Listed at 7’0”, Poeltl’s most impressive contributions come via his offensive rebounding stick-to-itiveness (first use, 1859).
Poeltl’s ability to almost always come away with the ball off misses, amongst a horde of other coloured jerseys is remarkable. He’s not the tallest, or fastest and certainly doesn’t jump the highest but time after time, his hands find the ball or at the very least he tips or bats it to a teammate. He ranks 9th amongst centres with 15 or more games played in Contested OREB% (79.5%). If you up the number of games played to 40 or more, he vaults up to third. Of those who play night in and night out, few are better at grabbing offensive rebounds in traffic than he is.
Per 100 possessions, Poeltl is 7th in offensive rebounds amongst centres playing in 15 games or more.
Poeltl’s purpose and impact are undeniable and substantial, even if his play does little for the likes of SportsCentre. Dwane Casey has long raved about the consistency Poeltl plays with, dating back to his rookie season. Few things irritate a coach more than players who, one night look unstoppable but take the next game or two off. “For me, just every time you put him in, he does something positive,” said Casey.
Nothing has changed in year two.
Poeltl credits his natural basketball instincts for his success and consistency. He can’t explain when or how he got them, but admits to enjoying a certain level of comfort while standing on a basketball court. It’s hard to imagine him not being a starter in this league sooner rather than later. For now, teams would be best served to start paying a little more attention to Jak when he’s on the floor, bench mobbin’.
All stats and rankings courtesy of NBA.com and were as of the afternoon on February 22, 2018.