Despite the escalating prevalence of small-ball in today’s NBA, mobile centers who impact the game on both ends are still considered treasures.
The Utah Utes may have one such prize in 7’0″ Austrian native Jakob Poeltl.
After piquing our interest during a strong freshman campaign in 2014-15, the 20-year-old has demanded scouts’ attention this year by wreaking havoc in the paint. He’s averaging 20.8 points and 9.8 boards through five games, earning widespread lottery buzz and even top 10 consideration. Poeltl is fresh off a 32-point, 11-rebound dismantling of Temple Sunday at the Puerto Rico Tipoff Classic.
Armed with exceptional defensive skills, sharp awareness and budding offensive tools, Poeltl is well on track to earn a role in the Association. But what exactly will that role look like?
Offensive Rebounder Extraordinaire
Poeltl isn’t a gifted outside shooter, and he’s not yet a top-tier back-to-the-basket weapon. But you can count on him to relentlessly crash the offensive glass.
As soon as any shot goes up, he boxes someone out and battles for the carom. He averaged 4.6 offensive boards per 40 minutes last year and he’s snagging 4.8 this year.
According to ESPN.com’s Chad Ford, Poeltl has packed on up to 30 pounds since last season. He fought hard for position last year, but this year it looks like he’s winning more of those skirmishes than before. Here he established inside position against Temple and aggressively converted after the offensive rebound:
And in this sequence, he finished through contact on a put-back against Miami:
Given his size, energy level and fundamentals, he should quickly become a productive offensive rebounder in the NBA. In his prime, he’ll snatch 3-4 o-boards per contest and 4-5 per 36 minutes.
Fourth or Fifth Scoring Option, Capable Passer
Last season, Poeltl’s offense was comprised largely of pick-and-roll finishes courtesy of future NBAer Delon Wright, along with transition buckets and put-backs. He showed superb hand-eye coordination for a 7-footer and proved he’d at least convert lobs and drop-offs.
This year, the scouting report has changed. Poeltl still does most of his damage near the rim, but his scoring avenues are more diverse. He’s now more comfortable hitting hooks and bankers over either shoulder, and he’s mixed in more drop-steps and up-and-unders:
Jakob Poeltl up-and-under-lefty off glass. He wouldn't have even thought about attempting that last year. Awesome move.
— CJ Moore (@CJMooreBR) November 17, 2015
Thanks to his improved footwork, soft touch and strong style of play, Poeltl has looked the part of a future NBA post player.
Watch him seal off his man to gain lateral position and finish fluidly with the left:
And here he made an athletic catch, faked left and executed a nice power right-handed hook:
The offensive upgrades have dramatically boosted his field goal attempts and points per minute, and they’ve also earned him more trips to the free throw line (12.7 per 40 minutes compared to 6.3 last year). To top it off, his free throw percentage has climbed from 44 percent in 2014-15 to 71 percent so far in 2015-16.
Poeltl’s expanding skills also include solid passing. His assist percentage has improved from 6.6 percent to 10.8, and while he’s not a high-volume dime-dropper, he has a knack for connecting with teammates when opportunities arise:
Poeltl distributing early on. Bounce pass to a cutter, smooth one handed post kick out, & a touch pass. Has always been patient w/ some feel
— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) November 20, 2015
Poeltl still hasn’t proven himself in the mid-range shooting department, nor has he demonstrated many face-ups or post-ups that go beyond one dribble. Nevertheless, he’ll enter the NBA as a dependable pick-and-roll scorer off the bench, and he could grow into the fourth or fifth-best scoring option on a mid-to-upper tier team. His utilization and value depends partially on whether he can develop a 15-foot pick-and-pop jumper.
Potentially Elite Rim Protector
Poeltl isn’t vertically explosive. You won’t see him bouncing to the rafters to block shots like DeAndre Jordan or Rudy Gobert.
It doesn’t matter. His defensive instincts and fundamentals are robust enough to garner minutes early in his NBA career, and they could help propel him to a key role in his prime.
The Utes star does a phenomenal job of preventing opponents’ low-post opportunities, and he also alters a boatload of shots with terrific footwork, timing and his 7’0″ frame. Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress.com described Poeltl’s low-post defensive prowess:
(Poeltl’s) tougher than he gets credit for. Not afraid to throw around his body. (He’s) physical before the catch…Works hard to front/deny.
Watch him battle Jahlil Okafor on the block here. Poeltl got low to maintain leverage, denied the first entry pass and deflected the second:
It should be noted that he held Okafor, the eventual No. 3 pick in the 2015 draft, to six points and eight rebounds in that game.
When it comes to actually contesting shots, Poeltl’s certainly no slouch. Here he obliterated Malik Pope’s runner, reminding us why he blocked 3.2 shots per 40 minutes last year:
Mobile Helper and Switcher
The big fella’s defensive functionality goes well beyond one-on-one interior stoppage. Poeltl is blessed with terrific foot speed for someone his size, which enables him to recover when he’s beat, bolt to help from the weak side or switch in a pick-and-roll scenario.
Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman explained how Poeltl’s physical gifts enable him to stick with smaller players when screens force Utah to switch:
Poeltl moves exceptionally well, both running the floor north and south and laterally side to side. Terrific mobility helps put him in position to make plays…Light and quick on his feet, Poeltl remains tough for guards to shake off on switches.
It’s important to remember that the NBA brings a whole new level of speed compared to the college game. Poeltl won’t be able to chase everyone around the perimeter and switch in any scenario. But it’s still great to know he can dance with many guards and wings.
Short and Long-Term Outlook
What’s the bottom line for Poeltl’s NBA impact? How will all these skills and deficiencies translate?
Like any player, his career trajectory depends largely on where he lands. However, it’s safe to say in most cases he’ll be a defense-first asset off the bench during his rookie campaign. Poeltl will supply much better rim protection than we typically see from the average newcomer, and he’ll likely earn 15-18 minutes per game.
When he reaches his prime in two or three years and gets more touches in the rotation, he could flirt with double-double averages if he cracks a starting lineup and gets 30 minutes. Poeltl’s coach will confidently sprinkle in pick-and-rolls and duck-ins for him.
Whether he’s a starter or a top-tier backup center, Poeltl is the type of player who will consistently make a positive impact because he pounds the glass and makes the right plays. He’ll play to his strengths and serve within his role at a high level.