Jakob Poeltl and his quick adjustment to the Spurs Way

Jakob Poeltl has proven his worth as a prototypical low-usage center both last season with Toronto and this season in San Antonio. Can the Spurs' fabled developmental team help him to grow into a bigger role?

The San Antonio Spurs, as the league's most successful franchise for the past two decades, will nearly always get the benefit of the doubt. Even as the situation with Kawhi Leonard fell apart, the vast majority of the blame in the public sphere fell on Leonard and his camp. The Spurs are as close to unassailable as any professional sports team can be in the modern world.

When the Spurs shipped out their superstar to the Toronto Raptors, they were not making a deal to blow up the team and start over. Instead, they got the best player that they could get in return for their former franchise centerpiece. DeMar DeRozan might not be an All-Star in the Western Conference, but he is still a top-notch talent who has helped LaMarcus Aldridge to keep the offense afloat. San Antonio is all but guaranteed to make the playoffs for the 21st straight season.

The Spurs did not go all-in for future draft picks and young assets, but DeRozan was not the only piece that came to San Antonio in exchange for Leonard and long-time fan favorite Danny Green. The Raptors also sent back their 2019 first-round pick and young big man Jakob Poeltl. Poeltl, now in his third year in the NBA, played well in all 82 games of his sophomore season after a solid but understated rookie year.

Poeltl has continued that growth in San Antonio, and went from being a key bench cog earlier in the year to entering the starting lineup in recent weeks following Pau Gasol's buyout. His solid screening and aggressive offensive rebounding make him a good fit for a Spurs team lacking in both areas. Those skills, along with his rapidly improving passing, make Poeltl seem like a good bet to be yet another San Antonio developmental success story.

Offense: Screen and scrap

Jakob Poeltl has never been a player that really needed the ball. His career Usage Rate is 13.8%, meaning that he finishes plays with either a shot or a turnover at a rate well below league-average. When he does get the ball, he usually takes advantage. Poeltl has a stellar True Shooting Percentage of 64.3%, making him one of the more efficient scorers in the league. That shooting combined with his relative lack of turnovers leads to him scoring 1.108 points per possession this season, ranking in the 91st percentile league-wide per Synergy Sports. He combines good cutting instincts with the ability to set crushing picks and roll to the rim:

Poeltl is quickly developing into the perfect low-usage center for the modern NBA (non-stretch-5 division). He doesn't shoot often but takes advantage when he does, and he sets painful screens. The most impressive of those complementary skills, however, is his offensive rebounding. Poeltl is averaging 2.2 offensive rebounds per game in just 16.5 minutes per contest. He grabs 13.6% of all available offensive rebounds while on the floor this season, ranking third in the NBA among qualified players per NBA.com. And all of that for a coach who has famously given up on the offensive glass for years. The Spurs are still 28th in the league in offensive rebounding per Basketball-Reference, even with Poeltl's heroic efforts.

One could argue that the Spurs sending everyone except Poeltl back on defense would inflate his offensive rebounding numbers, until you look at his 2017-18 numbers. In 18.1 minutes per game, Poeltl grabbed two offensive rebounds per game for a Toronto Raptors team that was above league-average on the offensive glass. Poeltl ranked 11th among all qualified NBA players in Offensive Rebounding Percentage that season.

The only missing piece for Poeltl at this point is his passing, but he's already made dramatic improvements in that regard in San Antonio. Last season, he dished out 57 assists but turned the ball over 85 times. This season, he's reversed that ratio--he already has 83 assists to just 45 turnovers.

Poeltl will need to improve his passing almost as much as his post game to be a higher-usage offensive player, and he will need to put up more points to reach an All-Star level. He's still in just his third NBA season, so that growth will hopefully continue to shine through for the Spurs. Even if Poeltl's offensive game never really grows from here, he's already proven that he can be an excellent role player on that end of the floor.

Defense: Protect the paint

Jakob Poeltl fills his role just as effectively on the defensive end as he has on the offensive end. He is quick laterally and has been steadily improving at pick-and-roll coverage all year; he ranks in the 67th percentile against the big man in the pick-and-roll per Synergy Sports. Poeltl is also quick enough to help on the perimeter when necessary. He is just barely under league-average (in the 49th percentile per Synergy) at defending the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll.

Poeltl's biggest contribution to the team, however, comes in his rim protection abilities. He knows how to use his size and is an above-average vertical athlete for a 7-footer. His knowledge of pick-and-roll rotations is starting to catch up to his athleticism, as he shows by shutting down Devin Booker on this drive:

Poeltl ranks 11th among qualified players in Block Percentage this season per NBA.com, after finishing 12th last season. His raw block numbers are down (from 1.2 per game last year to 0.9 per game this season), but he is still a vicious deterrent near the rim. His defensive acumen doesn't just show up through his highlight-reel rejections, however. Players shoot 6.1% worse than league-average when guarded by Poeltl within six feet of the rim, per NBA.com.

Future Outlook: Can Poeltl make the leap?

Jakob Poeltl has already proven that he can be an effective role player in the NBA. This is his second straight season of incredibly efficient play on both ends from the center spot, with steady improvements in pick-and-roll coverage through both seasons. His low-usage offensive game and excellent rim protection on defense make him a valuable NBA player already.

The question with Poeltl is just how much better he can get, and how he can get there. He has gotten far more of an opportunity recently, starting the last eight games as of Monday night--all of which have been Spurs victories. Poeltl is averaging 7.5 points, 7.6 rebounds (with 2.9 offensive rebounds) and 2.3 blocks in 26.2 minutes per game. His ability to play his role on both ends of the floor has been just as effective in the starting lineup, but he still is a bit player at best in the team's offense.

The Spurs appear to at least be getting Poeltl more chances in the post than he had in Toronto. He's nearly doubled his post-up possessions used from last season, and converts at a decent rate--he ranks in the 61st percentile out of the post. However, doubling his post-up frequency doesn't change all that much--Poeltl still finishes just 9.6% of his possessions out of the post (numbers per Synergy Sports). He has a solid hook shot and soft touch close to the rim, but no range outside of about 10 feet. He will need to add strength and a few more counter-moves to be a worthwhile post-up option when starting alongside DeRozan and Aldridge.

Becoming a stretch-5 also seems a long way away for Poeltl. Gregg Popovich isn't exactly a fan of the 3-point revolution anyway, and Poeltl is a 56.8% free throw shooter who has made one of his two career attempts from beyond the arc. Pop might start by having Poeltl develop more of a mid-range jump shot before pushing out to 3-point range. His solid combination of roll-man savvy and cutting skill could make him a deadly pick-and-pop option.

The stretch run of this season and the playoffs will be a great test for the ninth overall pick in the 2016 draft. This offseason will be a more important one. Poeltl will enter restricted free agency at the end of the 2019-2020 season. He has already proven himself as a valuable NBA player, but improving his scoring and passing touch could make him a future All-Star.

The Raptors' developmental staff deserves a lot of credit for Poeltl's growth during his first two seasons, but he is now playing for the team with the most consistent and proven developmental staff in the NBA. If any team can be trusted to help him flip the switch on offense, it will be the San Antonio Spurs. Even if they don't, Jakob Poeltl has already proven that he will be around for many years to come.

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