Jakob Poeltl: where he fits in Raptors puzzle

The only lottery pick the Raptors have enjoyed in years was expended on Jakob Poeltl last summer. How was his rookie season, and what’s his upside?

The Toronto Raptors selected Jakob Poeltl with the #9 pick in the 2016 NBA draft. The youthful center, from Austria and the University of Utah, was regarded by the Raptors’ scouting staff as the seventh-best player on the board. When the first six were gone, and Poeltl was still available, Masai Ujiri and his people grabbed him.

Poeltl made the big team out of training camp, and played in 54 games, averaging 3.1 in both points and rebounds Per Game [PG]. He received spot minutes in the playoffs.

That’s all very interesting, says every reader, but what does Poeltl’s future look like? An excellent question, which I’ll take a run at.

Apr 7, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors center Jakob Poeltl (42) grabs a rebound in front of Miami Heat forward Okaro White (15) at the Air Canada Centre. The Raptors won 96-94. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Season 2 – time to make progress

Jakob will be 22 when next season tips off, so he’s unlikely to enjoy a Greek Freak-style growth spurt. Poeltl checks in at 7’0″ and 230 lbs., on a frame which looks capable of adding muscle without sacrificing speed or quickness [20-second timeout: Speed and quickness aren’t the same thing. Speed reflects where you are after sprinting or dribbling for 7 seconds; quickness deals with 1 second or less, and also includes one’s hands]. 

I like Poeltl, but I’m having difficulty in projecting him for the next 3 years. While I’m happy enough, at least in theory, with jack-of-all-trades players, one needs to be master of something.

Jakob took no 3-ball shots, so we can’t extrapolate anything about his distance shooting. His free-throw shooting was an unacceptable 54.4%, which makes me nervous. Jakob had few opportunities to put the ball on the deck and create his shot. He’s not a shot-blocker, or a particularly effective defensive rebounder.

However, his offensive rebounding rate was 1.4 PG, which ties him for fourth among rookies, and is far better than his peers on a per-minute basis. Clearly he’s capable of getting into position, usually on the weak side, before he’s boxed out. As those of us who cringed as Tristan Thompson created multiple second-opportunities for his Cleveland Cavaliers can attest, an offensive rebound is a valuable thing.

While I tend to steer away from the term “high basketball IQ” because it’s so subjective, I’ll suggest that offensive rebounding skill is a marker for IQ. Poeltl demonstrated the ability to avoid being trapped by scrums, and to move to where the ball was coming off the rim.

Jakob’s defensive rebounding didn’t show the same promise. He was 29th among rookies with 1.6 PG.

Vacant position – Help wanted

As we all know, the small-ball era is here, and there’s little reason to think that’s likely to change. If Poeltl isn’t going to be a player who missed the time of pick & pass centers, he must expand upon his proven ability to move well without the ball and get to spots outside the arc. Yes, Jakob, I hereby anoint you our “stretch-5” of the future.

Doing so is a huge leap of faith on my part. Poeltl’s poor free-throwing shooting doesn’t fill me with confidence, nor does his lack of hops. But somebody has to seize the job. As the safety valve on a DeMar DeRozan drive-&-dish, he might be perfect.

If the Raptors succeed in retaining most of their free agents, cheap players like Poeltl are going to be more important than ever. Mid-price contributors like Valanciunas, Joseph and Carroll will be vulnerable to being dumped to below-cap teams in exchange for draft picks. Let’s hope Poeltl can fill the vacant role of long-range gunner while still being able to hit the glass. The Raptors need him to be a success, sooner than later.