By Matt Esposito
Nothing about the pronunciation of Jakob Poeltl’s name makes sense to me and my Americentric world; a sure sign that I could use more culture in my life. Like me, your favorite NBA team could also use more Poeltl. While the Spurs have a contractual edge on signing the 25-year-old restricted free agent, he may look for more playing time with another squad, and several could come calling.
Despite being an analytics gemstone, Poeltl has registered 46 career starts in 276 career games and logged only 17.7 minutes per game last year. Recently, he told News 4 San Antonio that he is going to look at “a few other options and maybe find something that fits the concept better…when it comes to my career and my development, my role and the playing time are in the foreground.” Does he deserve more playing time, however?
Over the past three seasons, Poeltl has posted exceptional block, offensive rebound and effective field goal rates. According to Cleaning the Glass, he hasn’t finished below the 80th percentile in any of those categories since his freshman year in San Antonio. What’s more, he is an impactful dribble handoff (DHO) player. With Bam Adebayo and the Miami Heat leading the way in popularizing DHO strategy, expect that skill set to be in higher demand in upcoming seasons. That, paired with his excellent short-midrange touch, makes Poeltl an enticing free agent.
Touch in the Short Midrange
Poeltl does much of his damage near the rim, but because he lacks the requisite explosiveness to be a lob threat, he spends most of his time underneath it. Specifically, CTG informs that he took 26 percent of his field goal attempts from the short midrange last season. He sank an outstanding 49 percent of those shots, a slight but noticeable increase from last year’s 47 percent clip.
While Poeltl should not be asked to carry an offensive load, it would be interesting to see what he could do with a few more touches per game. What the center surrenders in vertical gravity, he makes up with soft touch, a high release, and solid instincts. A competent big man who can do things other than dunking, Poeltl has earned more scoring attempts.
Currently rostered on the Spurs are a handful of playmaking guards. Derrick White, Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker (not to mention DeMar DeRozan, if he returns) each have experience in the DHO game. Many of them have found success running this set through Poeltl and his concrete, 7-foot frame. Both his assist percentage and assist to usage ratio provide the proof:
If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, then expect Bam Adebayo to be blushing all year long. In a copycat league, teams will likely adopt the staple play that led the Heat to the NBA Finals. This puts Poeltl’s best offensive skill in high demand. Not only are his screens and passes perfectly timed, but he has shown real chops as a short-roll passer.
With Devonte Graham, Terry Rozier and perhaps a draft pick like LaMelo Ball or Anthony Edwards, the Charlotte Hornets could find themselves in need of strong DHO players. Plus, they have the cap space to outbid most suitors. Chicago may have a similar guard/wing-heavy roster and the full mid-level exception to work with.
Despite playing south of 18 minutes per game, Poeltl finished 12th in blocks per game among all players this season. In fact, he had more total blocks than defensive stalwarts Adebayo, Jarrett Allen and Giannis Antentokounmpo. It’s no wonder that Poeltl placed in the 93rd percentile for block percentage (CTG). Without an elastic wingspan or elite springiness, Poeltl still protects the paint. But how?
Compensating for his lack of athleticism, Poeltl is a bright defender with top-notch court awareness. He stays ahead of plays, times block attempts to avoid fouling, and thrives in drop pick-and-roll coverage. Yet, he isn’t a liability when dragged out onto the perimeter. Poeltl uses angles to his advantage and lets his instincts do the rest. His knack for blocking or altering three-pointers is a testament to his innate feel for the game.
Fits & Possible Contract
Aron Baynes has played his way into a sizable payday, giving the Phoenix Suns a need at the backup center position. Poeltl won’t see a minutes increase there, but he will have an important role as the Suns try to break a decade-long postseason drought. They can afford to overpay for Poeltl’s services and might be happy if they do.
Poeltl’s former team, the Toronto Raptors, could find themselves suddenly without both Marc Gasol and/or Serge Ibaka. The Austrian big man might just nab a starting role for his old club and could do so for a nice chunk of the MLE ($9 millionish.) These teams, alongside Charlotte, make sense for Poeltl.
Don’t forget about his current team, either. LaMarcus Aldridge is set to be a free agent after next season, and the Spurs could move on from him. Perhaps they trade him to a contender and kickstart a rebuild. Both of those scenarios suggest a starting role could be on the horizon for Poeltl. If Poeltl does re-sign, I might consider it a harbinger that Aldridge’s time in San Antonio could be coming to a close. Regardless, expect Poeltl to earn between $5–8 million in restricted free agency.
PODCAST BONUS! – Listen to Zach talk to Jeff Garcia of Locked On Spurs about all things San Antonio related. Garcia gives insight on Lonnie Walker’s inconsistency, DeMar’s player option, and the Spur’s upcoming draft pick.