The development of Toronto’s young core was unequivocally the biggest win of the 2017-18 season. (yes, bigger than finally winning a Game 1.) Every youngster on the Raptors, say with the possible exceptions of Norman Powell (sigh) and Lucas Nogueira, made significant strides in their respective development. Jakob Poeltl was one of those youngsters. The big Austrian had himself a fine sophomore season which, among other things, saw him feature in all 82 regular season games.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that Poeltl is the only lottery pick of the group of young players on the Raptors’ roster. By that alone, he should be held to a higher set of expectations than the others, but I don’t get the sense that’s how Masai Ujiri and Co. look at him — and I’m glad that’s the case. There tends to be a steeper learning curve for big men entering the NBA as opposed to guards.
That said, while Poeltl did show growth in certain areas he still has glaring limitations and holes in his game. It’s easy to get all giddy about his improved rim protection, and his periodical posterizations, but by the end of the second round of the playoffs he found himself stapled to the bench. He did not play in Game 3 of the Cleveland series, and was limited to twelve garbage time minutes in the post-season finale.
Poeltl’s season in a lot of ways mirrored that of his team’s. Filled with promise and reason for optimism, but certainly was not meant to end the way that it did.
Yak and Skills became a thing! Let me just start right there.
The sophomore version of Poeltl turned himself into an effective rim protector for the second-unit. His stature doesn’t scream Get that Garbage Outta Here! and yet the sight of him turning away opposing efforts at the rim became a regular occurrence on game nights. Per 100 possessions, Poeltl recorded 3.2 blocks in 2017-18, doubling his rookie mark of 1.6. Undeniable progress.
Offensively, he can impact the game by setting screens and finishing off the roll, but he’s still one-dimensional in that mode, in that his reliable range is the painted area. Sure he can take and make the odd short mid-range shot but he’s not exactly seeking them out or eager to take them when presented with an opportunity. Defenders will gladly give him space to shoot, and his roll doesn’t produce quite the same sort of gravity as, say, Jonas Valanciunas’ — at least not yet.
An effective screener, and an excellent roller with soft, gluey hands, Poeltl improved as an inside scorer. He also showed off his ball-handling prowess at times, something we hadn’t seen before until this season. In today’s NBA it never hurts to have big men who are comfortable putting the ball on the floor. (Looking at you, Serge.)
Finally, rebounding. Did I mention Poeltl is a fearless and relentless offensive rebounder? He doesn’t always come up with the ball, but he’ll tip, tap, and swat at it until he can do so no longer. Deceptively quick hops give him an edge over a lot of other players and it’s an area he must continue to excel at if he is to work his way into even more minutes in future seasons.
Overall, Poeltl’s sophomore year has him trending upwards. Despite falling out of the playoff rotation he remains a critical part of Toronto’s future — whether that’s as a player or potential trade chip remains to be seen.
As good as Poeltl was at crashing the offensive glass, it never seemed to be the same on the defensive end. Watching Tristan Thompson muscle him around was telling as to the strides he must make in his physical makeup. He also got routinely outmuscled in the Washington series. Jak’s got to get bigger, stronger and more solid, generally speaking. A young player trying to mould his body into its ideal NBA form takes time. This is a big off-season for Poeltl in terms of physical development.
Another area for Poeltl to focus on is expanding his range. Asking for threes so soon seems like a dick move, so I’ll stick with a reliable mid-range shot here. Too often defenders were able to cheat off him because of the scoring area he’s confined to. As Poeltl gains confidence in his shot, one would expect him to be less timid when left open.
And finally, foul trouble plagued Poeltl in his rookie season, and it did so again in year two — he led Toronto in fouls with 212 despite playing only the sixth most minutes in the regular season. DeMar DeRozan, the team’s leader in minutes played, committed 61 fewer fouls while playing over a thousand more minutes. Different reputations with the officials, but still. As time goes on, officials should take note of Poeltl’s game and lay off him a bit, but him getting stronger and more physically capable will go a long way in eliminating his proneness to whistles.
The Grade: B-
A largely unspectacular season, but by no means a failure for Poeltl. Most importantly, Poeltl’s mindset is what will allow him to improve and evolve. Once we move past his need to bulk up (which is the case for many young big men), a lot of Poeltl’s issues are confidence dependent, especially on the offensive side of things.
As is the case with the majority of Toronto’s young players, Poeltl is entering a pivotal off-season in which he must continue to push himself to get better. In a way the late benching might have been the best thing for Poeltl’s development in the long run. And look, if this season taught me anything it’s to not doubt what this group of young hungry Bench Mobsters are capable of.